'Camp Widow' Helps Military Wives Heal From Grief
More than 5,000 U.S. service members have died in Iraq and Afghanistan. The vast majority of them were men in their early 20s. Many leave behind their wives who never imagined they would find themselves widows at a young age.
"Camp Widow" describes itself as a way to create a community of people who understand the life-altering experience of widowhood. It's not a gloomy gathering.
Donita Perkle's husband died two years ago of a heart attack as he was driving home from work one night.
"You know how you have one of those days where you just feel widowhood sucks?" And I thought, I'm making me a t-shirt that says how I really feel. It says, 'My husband went to heaven and all I got was this lousy Tshirt,'" says Perkle.
There are tears at the conference too.
"Does anyone need this Kleenex?" asks Taryn Davis. "Are these yours? You might need them."
Davis' husband Michael Davis was killed by a road side bomb in Iraq three yeas ago. Michael was Taryn's teenage sweetheart. They married when she was 19. When he died, just six months after deploying, she was 21.
Most widows at this conference are at least middle aged. Before Davis makes her speech to the attendees, she confides that she feels a little out of place at the gathering.
I obviously look the youngest and I told them I was a speaker and they were like 'oh,'" says Davis. "Whereas in our organization, all of us are in our 20s. People come up to us and ask us if we are a sorority."
Davis launched her own organization, especially for military widows, as a way to help herself survive. She calls it the "American Widows Project." Four months after her husband was killed. Davis set off around the country, looking for other widows like herself. She shows a video she made of their stories at the conference.
So I know you aren't all military widows, but I think we all know that grief is universal and you can't put an age on grief," says Davis.
The video tells the stories of six young military widows, who tell it in their own words, starting with how they met their husbands.
This gorgeous blond haired, blue eyed guy walks into the store, and when he left I turned and told my friend and said, 'hey man, I hope he comes back and gets my number."
They talk about how they felt when their husbands deployed. This woman's husband volunteered to go just days after the birth of their first child.
"And I was so angry with him, but I couldn't tell him not to go because I know why he joined the military. It was the same reason I joined the military, and you can't sit there and tell somebody not to go."
For each of the women, the day comes when two men in uniform knock on their door.
I fell to the floor and I was just screaming. I was like 'No No No No!" They were like 'Ma'am, we regret to inform you, "No No No No, I'm just screaming at the top of my lungs, and I stop. 'Your husband' 'No No No' "Captain Sean Wiley, was killed." And as soon as they said "killed" I didn't hear anything else they said."
The grieving doesn't stop when most friends and family wish it would.
They think that 'it's been this long, why do we still have to talk about it?' It makes people feel uncomfortable, but what they don't realize is that it makes me feel more comfortable to talk about it."
That's why Davis is building a community of military widows. She wasn't living near a military base. When she first went looking for people to talk to about her grief. The only group she could find was a hospice group where the youngest people were in their 60s. Through social networking, she's built a community of women mostly in their 20s. Their wounds of war are not as visible as those of service members who return from combat without an arm or a leg.
"I don't have a physical wound to show that my heart was basically ripped out after Michael was killed," says Davis.
But now, three years out, as she puts it, she's come a long way. And she's found a way to embrace being a widow,.
For me, to tell people that I'm a military widow," says Davis, "it signifies not only my husband's sacrifice, but my sacrifice, and most importantly, my survival through all of it."
Davis says she's noticing the changes in herself, and that age is less important than how much time people have had to be with their grief, and what they find in it.