Host Katy Clark speaks with Taryn Davis, whose husband, Army Corporal Michael Davis, was killed in Iraq in 2007, and Michele Neff Hernandez of the “Soaring Spirits Loss Foundation.” The women describe how military widows can often feel shunned by their communities when a spouse dies, and how they don’t exactly fit in the civilian world either.
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KATY CLARK: June was the deadliest month for foreign forces in Afghanistan since the war there began in 2001. More than 100 NATO soldiers were killed. 58 of them were American service members. Most of the US war dead, from Afghanistan as well as Iraq, are men. And many left behind wives. Those widows often find themselves trapped between two worlds. They feel they no longer fit in the military world, but neither do they feel at home in the civilian world. Yet all these military widows say they’re united by one thing – their grief.
MICHELE NEFF HERNANDEZ: One of the things that they have in common is that moment when they heard the words that changed their lives, “We regret to inform you.”
CLARK: That’s Michele Neff Hernandez. She’s President and Executive Director of the Soaring Spirits Loss Foundation. It’s a national support network for anyone grieving the loss of someone they love. The group holds its second “Camp Widow” next month in San Diego. Hernandez says the age of many military widows can make their plight more difficult.
HERNANDEZ: So many of them are very young and they also share the experience of having their grief set aside by people who assume that their age means they couldn’t possibly be that affected by the loss of this love because certainly there’s time for another. And there’s nothing like being dismissed when you’re grieving because it makes it seem as if what you’re feeling doesn’t matter. And if you want to take that one step further then does that mean that the death of this soldier doesn’t matter because there is a family left behind grieving that loss no matter what age he was when he died.
CLARK: I’d like to introduce Taryn Davis. Her husband Michael was a combat engineer in the Army. He was killed by a roadside bomb in Iraq in May 2007. Taryn, how long had you and Michael been together and were you sort of this typical military wife we’re talking about?
TARYN DAVIS: I wasn’t the typical military wife while we were together for about 7 years, married for less than a year and a half when he was killed in Baghdag, Iraq. Besides the way that our husbands lose their lives which are very sudden and tragic ways. IEDs, rocket-propelled grenades, I mean, the age is a huge aspect of it. I believe that the average age of a soldier killed right now in the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars is around 26 or 27 and half of those serving are married. We’re looking at a very young age as far as these widows go. I was 21 when Michael was killed and we had lived on a military base while he was stationed in Alaska, but I moved back home to finish school while he was deployed in Iraq and so I didn’t really have that military community around me. Michael was signed on for three years in the military and honestly I was one of those people that thought he would die of old age. He would come back and if anything maybe it would be a freak accident like a car accident. I didn’t think that his 22 years of life, that his vehicle would be hit by improvised explosive devices, killing himself and two other soldiers that day.
CLARK: For you, how did other military wives react to your news? Those wives whose husbands were still serving. You know, perhaps their worst nightmare you were living out.
DAVIS: You get different reactions. Those that are really supportive and want to be there and like with time kind of fade away. There’s those that, you know, kind of feel like you’re cursed and they don’t want to be around you and fear that that might be their future. And so I mean the reactions are different.
CLARK: So what did you do? How did you kind of deal with what you were going through then?
DAVIS: It was about four months, I guess, after Michael’s passing and, you know, people move on with their lives and here I was, 21, a military widow, and really didn’t see any meaning in being alive at all. I mean my soul mate was killed. I felt that nobody really understood who I was or what I was going through and disregarded my grief due to my age and gave me their – the cliché “Well at least you’re young. You’ll get remarried. Life goes on.” But for me I didn’t, I didn’t want to follow those, those solutions that they were giving me. So being the 21-year-old college student I was, I went on-line one night and I Googled “widow” and it came back with “Did you mean window?” When I read that, it hit me that this was just a title and a subject that really wasn’t spoken about and so from there was when I contacted one of the wives whose husband was killed alongside Michael and I said, you know, “I don’t really know you. I want to ask you the questions that people stopped asking me. I want to know how you met your husband. I want to know how you told your son. I want to know what gets you up every day and makes you not only want to breathe but learn to live life again. And it was in the midst of actually going down there and meeting here that I started filming these stories and their journeys and I made documentary out of that and it was in the midst of creating that documentary that I started my non-profit organization American Widow Project for the new generation of military widows in hopes of connecting these women because, like Michele said earlier, I mean, we had a community before. For some, it was a close-knit community. For others, it was not so close knit and I wanted the camaraderie that I knew my husband had with his soldiers, with these military widows.
CLARK: Michele, from your experience, do most military widows stay in touch with the military in some way after their spouse dies? And if so, how do they do that?
HERNANDEZ: I think it really depends on what their experience was. Whether they felt supported. Whether they lived on base. I think it also depends on their age and sometimes how long their husband was in the military. I know of some military widows who are still in contact with the men who served in their husbands units. I know that some are still in contact with people who they lived on base with and then there are others who have felt shunned, who have felt that nobody wanted to be around them because they were a reminder of what actually does happen. That people do die in wars. That some husbands don’t come back.
CLARK: Taryn Davis I wanted to give you a chance to sort of express your thoughts. What would you like people to understand about being a military widow I guess? What is most helpful to somebody facing that now? What is something that you wished people had done or said to you?
DAVIS: I think if you come across a widow or a military widow specifically, you can look at them in the eyes and maybe say you don’t understand what they’re going through, but know that you’re trying to learn and trying to be somebody that isn’t going to disregard what they’ve been through or pretend like it never happened, but someone that wants to look at them in the eyes and say, you know, you should be proud to be a military widow and I don’t know what you’ve been through, but the sacrifice that not only your husband or wife has made, that you have made, is one that I acknowledge. And I think in our society people just see numbers now unfortunately and, you know, the passing of the soldier in a community just becomes the 8 o’clock news and a number next to it and for me I honestly know that’s – there’s definitely much more behind that number.
CLARK: Taryn Davis is the surviving spouse of Army Corporal Michael Davis who was killed in Iraq. She’s the founder and director of the American Widow Project. Michele Neff Hernandez runs the non-profit support group, the Soaring Spirits Loss Foundation. You can find links to both organizations at our website, The World.org. Thank you both so very much.
HERNANDEZ: Thank you.
DAVIS: Thank you Katy.
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