Magazine Feature / People

Widow honors husband’s memory with career

Nannette Byrne-Haupt (BA psychology, criminology ’05) shares a memory of her husband, Ryan.

While on leave from Iraq and dressed in camouflage (as a sniper, invisibility is a must), he set out for the backyard to hide from his two dogs.

“He told me to wait a minute and then let the dogs out,” Byrne-Haupt says. “Of course, they knew something was up and they found him and started barking. What made it even funnier was that our dogs were little Chihuahuas.”

That was June 2006. Nannette and Ryan had just married (a small ceremony in the Garden of the Gods in Colorado Springs, Colo.) and their talk was of the future. “It was what all new couples talk about, our lives, getting a house, having a family, those kinds of things,” Byrne-Haupt says.

But first, Ryan had to finish his tour. A few days later he was back in Iraq. He was scheduled to return to Colorado Springs on Oct. 17. Instead, he volunteered for one last assignment — a convoy to transport some equipment.

“I was downstairs on a phone interview for a job when I heard our dogs barking, then I heard my father say to come upstairs now,” Byrne-Haupt says. “I went up. I’d never seen that look on my dad’s face before, and I knew something bad had happened.”

Three men dressed in their army uniforms stood at the door. One of them was what the military calls a casualty notification officer. A roadside bomb had killed Ryan.

“It seemed so unreal,” she says. “And I remember the day. It started snowing. Snowing hard. My grandmother from Hungary used to say when it rained or snowed really hard it meant angels were crying for a loved one.”

Then, less than two years later in June 2008, Byrne-Haupt and her mother were returning to Colorado from a trip to visit Ryan’s grave in Illinois when her mother fell asleep at the wheel. The car rolled four times. Before the ambulance had reached the hospital, her mother died.

“In less than two years, the two most important people in my life were gone,” Byrne-Haupt says. “I had to really just step back and think about what I was supposed to do with my life.”

She spent about six months processing everything that had happened. She remembered her mom telling her she should look into social work with the military and that they needed people to help the surviving families of those slain soldiers.

“I decided to look into that and it seemed to fit pretty well,” Byrne-Haupt says. “I knew I wanted to work with the military to give back because that’s what Ryan did. He loved the Army. I thought of him as a living G.I. Joe action hero. And I needed a purpose, too. The tragedy brought me to the idea of giving selflessly. That’s what Ryan did.”

Today, Byrne-Haupt is earning her master’s degree in social work from Newman University in Colorado Springs and counseling others who’ve lost family in the war at Fort Carson’s Survivor & Outreach Services Center.

“It’s been great and I feel like this is what I’m supposed to be doing now,” she says. “I think being a survivor makes all the difference. [The families] know I can speak from the heart, that’s something you can’t get from a textbook. They need to know I’ve been there and have credibility — having that common ground with them matters.”

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