- The Washington Times - Monday, April 19, 2010

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.

“Nobody likes to see a 22- or 23-year-old widow, and people by nature want to ‘fix’ problems or people,” she said. “In reality, I think we just need someone who can listen and understand what we are going through versus trying to tell us how to deal with it or how to move on with our lives.”

Mrs. Davis said she wants to educate the public and share her experience of becoming a young military widow and about the steps she took to survive her soul mate’s death.

The first thing that she changed was her address book.

“I’ve lost friends and I’ve lost touch with a lot of people,” Mrs. Davis said. “They gave up on how to deal with me. When Mike was killed and I was handed that flag, I knew that this wasn’t the end. I’m not going to stop talking about him and I’m not living in the past because it made me the person I am today. We have to put a lot of effort to make people understand [that].”

She then began filming a documentary, “The American Widow Project,” which is described as “six stories of love, tragedy and survival.” The documentary is now mailed to newly bereaved women.

The Department of Defense does not release the names of widows, so Mrs. Davis does outreach through word of mouth or the widows find the group via the Internet.

Mrs. Davis has her work cut out for her. According to the Defense Department, there have been at least 5,433 casualties in Operation Iraqi Freedom and Afghanistan’s Operation Enduring Freedom since 2003.

Most of the causalities are men. There is no prominent support group for military widowers for at least 135 female soldiers who have died in those military operations. However, Mrs. Davis encourages widowers to contact her so she can try to help them - since she says “grief is universal.”

Funded by private donations, AWP now includes its own Web site www.americanwidowproject.org and “getaway” events for 10 to 15 widows at a time. The latter are quarterly events for the widows to reduce stress and make friends with others. One recent getaway brought together 12 widows at a “Salute to Our Troops Rodeo” event in Houston.

“They’re about taking these widows to where they’re bound to have fun and if they feel bad about laughing, they can look around and see smiling faces,” Mrs. Davis said.

After the getaways, the widows stay in touch via Facebook and phone calls. Widows usually reconnect when they attend a second getaway and many exchange phone numbers as they build their friendships.

“I see this community unifying in this new concept of it being OK to be a young military widow,” Mrs. Fuerst said. “Most who are involved with the AWP leave the events with what has been described as ‘a new lease on life.’ There is something very special and life-altering about having a peer to share this journey with.”

Mrs. Eischen said the support from AWP, which also gives widows a brochure with information on resources to help them cope with loss, changed her life.

“It was more beneficial to my well-being and my emotional health than the whole year in counseling,” she said. “You feel like you’re in this twilight zone that no one understands. You tell the women how you feel and they know exactly how it feels. The overall effort of the AWP is to provide companionship, help and unify a forgotten group.”

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