Moving on with life can be harder for military widows
By Julie Watson and Kevin Maurer
RAEFORD, N.C. — Joann Yost still feels the stares of the other military wives five years after her husband was killed in Iraq: It happens at ceremonies honoring fallen soldiers or when she's grocery shopping with her son.
It is unsettling, but Yost understands. In this North Carolina community a half-hour from Fort Bragg, where homes are draped with American flags and where it's not uncommon to see men in buzz cuts, the 44-year-old Yost is a reminder of everything that can go wrong in war, how lives can change overnight.
"These women look at me and know how close it could have been their husband," said Yost, mother of a 6-year-old boy.
It is hard to be a young military widow. Yost and others say they feel out of place in both civilian life and in their military communities. They have lost their husbands, but also their very identities, and their connections to towns that once provided a critical support system.
Increasingly, they are turning to social networks and organizations for help in adjusting to their new lives.
To be sure, it is difficult for anyone who has lost a spouse to move on with life. But military wives feel an even greater weight, said Michelle Hernandez, founder of the Soaring Spirits Loss Foundation, a national support network for the bereaved.
Hernandez said the pain is compounded because military wives immerse themselves in a different world. They learn the acronyms sprinkled in soldierspeak, attend a calendar filled with military-hosted social events and adopt the schedule of long leaves and weekends between deployments.
They also share a similar world view: They are sacrificing their family life and lives defending freedom.
As a result, their struggle to move on is also harder. They often feel that if they start to date again, they are betraying not just the memory of their deceased husbands but also that of fallen national heroes.
"That separates them a little bit from civilian widows," said Hernandez, whose organization in August will hold Camp Widow, a national conference in San Diego, which will include talks for military widows. "They have paid the price for the greater common good. They point to a purpose that they were widowed. My husband was hit by a car so it's a totally different type of experience."
Many surviving spouses try to continue living near bases to maintain a connection to their previous life. Some send care packages to their husbands' units — even if they did not know many of the new troops. They go to military-sponsored balls.
But many find themselves trapped in a state of restless uncertainty. They don't feel as comfortable as before in military life, but they don't want to totally leave it, either.
Joann Yost sometimes feels as if she is wearing a giant "W" on her chest.
"It's not OK for us to laugh. It's not OK for us to smile. They don't understand how we're doing it. I find myself consoling people," she said.
Rachelle Vaughn says she feels like one of the lucky ones. It's been two years since soldiers came to her door with the news that dropped her to her knees, screaming: A sniper had killed her 22-year-old husband, Richard, in Iraq.
When her husband died, she was only 11 days pregnant. Their marriage was less than a month old and their entire relationship had only lasted 15 months. Vaughn moved back immediately to their hometown of San Diego.
"It was such a weird feeling losing your husband and knowing that your friends' husbands were still out there," the 24-year-old said. "I was so afraid to tell the rest of the wives. I didn't want to."
Instead of being shunned, she was embraced. The few military wives she had come to know at Fort Hood, where her husband was stationed, flew to San Diego to be with her. They helped make her food and consoled her.
Vaughn said friends who are military widows "have told me they were shunned, that people treat it like a disease, like they'll catch it too," she said. "Thankfully I didn't get that."
She sends care packages of candy, lip balm and magazines to Richard's unit and receives news from the new commanding officer each time the troops are deployed.
"There's something about being a military wife that makes it different, and it makes you want to do something to honor the military because now he's a part of history," she said.