Dressed in black and seated in a folding chair in front of flag-draped coffin, the young woman is heartbroken. Her parents stand behind her with their hands on her shoulders. A soldier kneels before her, presents her a folded American flag and expresses gratitude for her husband’s distinguished service in the military.
The official ceremony is over, but the grieving process has just begun.
That’s when the American Widow Project (AWP) begins its work. Since 2007, the nonprofit organization, founded by military widow Taryn Davis of San Marcos, Texas, has helped an estimated 400 new and mostly young military widows piece together their shattered lives. And it’s helped Mrs. Davis begin to heal as well.
“[T]o be around these women, I think I’ve been able to learn and my life has come together. … I know we have a far way to go, but I think we have the push and the drive to reach them,” Mrs. Davis said.
When her husband, Army Cpl. Michael W. Davis, was killed in May 2007 by a roadside bomb in Baghdad, Mrs. Davis, then a 21-year-old college student, found herself alone. Although the U.S. Army’s casualty assistance officer helped her with paperwork and burial arrangements, Mrs. Davis said she needed someone her age to identify with.
“I didn’t have anyone tell me that I was normal,” Mrs. Davis said.
So, with the help of money she received in military death gratuity, Mrs. Davis started to organize AWP.
“When I was notified, it felt like someone just carved out my insides,” Mrs. Davis, now 24, said of the moment when two soldiers came to her home to notify her of her husband’s death. “Now I’m proud to call myself a military widow because it symbolizes my husband’s sacrifice and my survival.”
Instead of remarrying as past generations of widows were commonly expected to do, widows today are more interested in preserving their husbands’ legacy, Mrs. Davis said.
“They are survivors; they are products of their husbands’ sacrifice and of what they have been able to get through,” she said. “It’s redefining the face of what people will think when they hear ‘widow.’
“I think they take the grief and pain and use it to fuel them.”
Leah Eischen of Lincoln, Neb., was 23, with a 2½-year-old son, when her husband, Senior Airman Nicholas D. Eischen, died in a noncombat-related incident on Christmas 2007.
“Everyone expects us to move on and get married again,” Mrs. Eischen said. “That’s not how we feel. Our outlook of it was that it was our choice to be with that person forever.
“A lot of the women don’t want to get married again,” Mrs. Eischen added. “They committed to their husbands for their whole lives.”
Tara Fuerst, a 26-year-old widow from Brandon, Fla., whose husband,Staff Sgt. Joseph F. Fuerst III, died on June 24, 2006, in a combat zone near Kandahar, Afghanistan, said people always want to ‘fix’ her.