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'Semper fidelis'

Romance with a Marine spans oceans before bringing a Berkeley Prep graduate and the lawyer she loves to the altar.

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By AMY SCHERZER, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published August 9, 2002

TAMPA -- The terror of Sept. 11 didn't make Claudette Otero's decision any easier. Her head and heart already struggled in a mental tug of war over a future married to a Marine.

One month before she fell in love with Jonathan Vaughn -- then a student at Case Western University School of Law -- he was commissioned as a U.S. Marine Corps lawyer.

"If there hadn't been such a strong attraction, I would easily have said, 'No way. Why even start a relationship?' " said Claudette, 27. She was studying for a master's degree in public health nutrition at Case Western in Cleveland when they met at a law school social.

But their bond grew tighter than a Marine's bedsheet.

While Claudette tried to imagine life as his wife, Jon found being a military criminal defense attorney suited him.

"I'm not one to sit behind a desk and watch," said Jon, 27. "I want to be a leader; the Marines gave me that chance."

What about Claudette? Could she handle that?

"I finally found someone I really loved and wanted to be with him," she said. "I couldn't picture him being away all the time."

The young couple talked through their fears. Claudette knew she had captured Jon's heart, but the rest of him belonged to the Marines. He did what he could to dispel the myths she associated with military life.

"Reality is, I can't control where I go, when I go," he told Claudette. "Every Marine is a rifleman . . . introduced to every weapon, trained in every tactic."

Graduation from Case Western on the same day in May 2000 brought much celebration. Claudette went to work for the public health department in Cleveland. Jon took a job in a small Cleveland law firm. He studied for the bar and awaited his orders.

Then came Sept. 11, leaving no doubt who was in charge of Jon.

Training at Basic School in Quantico, Va. (also home to the FBI Academy), Jon's company went on high alert. Somehow, he found 30 seconds to call Claudette, long enough to tell her he was safe, he loved her and he didn't know when he could call again.

"I was scared," Claudette said, "but I have strong faith that there's always a plan for our lives. Being in the military wouldn't necessarily take him any sooner."

* * *

Jon's ability to survive and thrive may be what drew them together in the first place.

On their first date, they bought coffee and sat in the inner harbor of Lake Erie. Jon told her the story of his childhood. Shortly after he was born on a naval base in Bremerton, Wash., his parents moved to Georgia and divorced. Neither parent could support him, and Jon bounced through a series of foster homes. He was 4 when his maternal grandparents in Cleveland were awarded permanent custody of him and an older stepbrother,David Zink.

He grew up in Cleveland and was an honor student at St. Ignatius High School, where he twice won Ohio state wrestling championships. His mother, Judith Vaughn, visited every month. He did not meet his father, Jefferson Vaughn, until his sophomore year at the University of Illinois.

"Pretty heavy conversation for a first date," Claudette said. "He laid it all out on the table, but I thought there was more to tell and I wanted to hear it. There was something a little mysterious about him and I was captivated."

Said Jon: "I just figured I'd get all the bad news out first and see if she'd run."

That cup of coffee lasted for four hours, as Claudette shared her stories. She attended Berkeley Prep from kindergarten through 12th grade, graduating in 1993. Recruited to play volleyball at Penn State University, she captained the team her senior year and competed in the NCAA Final Four twice.

Her parents divorced in 1995. Her father, Alberto Otero, a retired physician and owner of the Manhattan Medical Walk-In Clinic, moved to Lima, Peru. Her mother, Karin Otero, works as a nurse at Suncoast Dialysis, part of the University of South Florida, and lives in South Tampa.

* * *

In October 2001, Jon graduated sixth of 250 in his class at Basic School, and moved onto Naval Justice school in Newport, R.I.

His orders arrived: He would report to Okinawa, Japan, the following January.

"That's when it began to sink in what life would be like without her," he said.

He began shopping for an engagement ring. He decided he would propose over Christmas, while the two visited Alberto Otero in Peru.

Jon continued to talk about a long-distance relationship, never hinting that he hoped she would join him in Okinawa.

On Christmas Eve, Claudette was caught off-guard.

"We finished Christmas Eve dinner at my Uncle Rafael's, and it was getting late, near midnight," she said. "My Dad got out the champagne, and I assumed he was going to make a holiday toast."

Alberto Otero began in Spanish. He welcomed Jon to the family. Then he switched to English.

"With the blessing of the mother and father, Jon would like to speak," Otero said.

Jon got down on one knee. By then, Claudette was in tears. He asked her to marry him.

"I was totally shocked," Claudette said. "He had really prepared me for another long separation while he went to Japan."

On Jan. 6, Jon flew to Okinawa to represent Marines at five bases on the island. Claudette began planning the wedding.

Saturday, in Tampa, they were married.

The 155 guests included six sword bearers. After the wedding vows, they presented an arch of swords in the courtyard at St. John's Episcopal Church.

Claudette and Jon kissed beneath the sabers to a hearty Marine "hoo-rah!"

-- Writer Amy Scherzer can be reached at 226-3332 or

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