VFW Magazine — March 2011
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Recent War Widows Helping Each Other
Kelly Von Lunen

THE FACTS: A roadside bomb in Baghdad on May 21, 2007, killed three members of the 425th Brigade Special Troops Bn., 4th BCT, 25th Inf. Div. THE SOLDIERS: Staff Sgt. Shannon V. Weaver, 28, of Urich, Mo.; Sgt. Brian D. Ardron, 32, of Acworth, Ga.; and Spc. Michael W. Davis, 22, of San Marcos, Texas. THE UNKNOWN: What the future holds for the three wives of these young men.

T Aryn Davis was 21 years old when the improvised explosive device killed her husband, leaving her a widow.

Four months later, she initiated a documentary project to record six other military widows’ stories. The film debuted in Austin, Texas, in July 2008 for the “launch” of the American Widow Project (AWP). Her non-profit organization is dedicated to the newest generation of war widows, with an emphasis on healing through sharing stories, tears and laughter.

Since then, AWP has connected with more than 600 military widows, including Some who lost their spouses to noncombat causes.

‘Me In a Different Shell’

When Davis learned of her husband’s death at 11:30 on the night of May 21, she was referred to Fort Hood’s Gold Star Family Support Center. But at the age of a typical college student, she didn’t feel like she fit in there.

“I kind of just fell by the wayside,” she said. “I was paralyzed, just trying to Find something. I was given resources but they either seemed too outdated or they weren’t too dedicated. I Googled ‘widow’ one evening and the response was, ‘do you mean “window”?’ I just wanted someone to give me a lot of details about what they had gone through as well.”

High school sweethearts, Davis and her husband married before Christmas 2005. After his death, she corresponded with a fellow widow whose husband died in Vietnam when he was 18 and she was 19.

“She’s a 60-year-old woman, but she knows me and what I’m going through,” Davis said. “She’s me in a different shell. She’s gone through what I’ve gone through and continues to go through.”

Davis used her husband’s death gratuity money to purchase camera equipment and start AWP. In 2008, the Austin Film Society provided a grant to help create a DVD, and other funding has since derived from media attention and activities.

The first interview was with a woman whose husband was killed in the same incident as Davis’.

“It was very emotional, very hard to hear things and ask questions I didn’t really want to ask,” Davis told the San Marcos Daily Record, “because they would correlate with what happened to my husband.”

An estimated half of all service members killed in Iraq and Afghanistan have been married. Davis ordered 3,000 copies of her DVD and sends them free of charge to these spouses.

Jocelyn Mintzlaff was widowed at 25. Her husband, 34-year-old Staff Sgt. Brian L. Mintzlaff, died Dec. 18, 2006, in Taji, Iraq, from injuries suffered when his Bradley Fighting Vehicle rolled over. He was assigned to the 2nd Bn., 8th Cav Regt., 1st Bde., 1st Cav Div.

“This was his third tour in Iraq and he had come home safely the first two times and I never once considered it,” Mintzlaff told CBS 11 in Dallas-Fort Worth. “We had talked about it for practical matters, but I never once considered that I would be a widow.”

Mintzlaff felt estranged from everyone until she met Davis.

“No 20-year-old is going to know how to bury a husband, and no one around her is going to know how to help her,” she told CBS 11. “AWP is definitely military-widow-to-military-widow, sharing stories about our husbands and trying to leave a legacy for them.”

Within five months, some 120 widows were involved with the project. Through the website, women come together from as far apart as California, Washington,D.C., and Texas.

“I thought AWP should be positive,” Davis said. “It signifies my husband’s sacrifice and my survival. I wanted to find others in my situation who could embrace that with me as well. For me just to be a part of AWP gives me a sense of what Michael felt when he was serving. We have the camaraderie that our husbands had.”

AWP’s hotline is staffed not by grief counselors, but by fellow widows. Official events include surfing and skydiving, rather than speakers and seminars.

“I went through the first year of my grief alone, miserable,” Stacey Markham, widow of Sgt. Jonathan Markham, told ABC News. “I didn’t think I could make it another day, and then I found AWP on MySpace and everybody just helps each other, encourages each other. It just gives me hope, makes me get up another day.”

‘No Right or Wrong Way to Grieve’

Elisabeth Kübler-Ross in her book On Death and Dying (1969) outlined five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. While the stages took hold and became widely known, widows such as Davis and some researchers disagree.

“I realized that there’s no right or wrong way to grieve,” Davis told the Los Angeles Times. “There’s no steps or stages.”

Davis explains that most people understand that service members have been wounded when they see a scar or an amputated limb. “With a military widow, it’s not that easy,” she said. “You can’t put a ‘W’ on their forehead. People don’t understand the sacrifice and the death of our spouse.”

Ruth Davis Konigsberg’s The Truth About Grief: The Myth of Its Five Stages and the New Science of Loss (Simon & Schuster, 2011) not only includes Davis’ American Widow Project, but also further challenges the idea of rigid grief stages.

“Probably the most accurate predictors of how someone will grieve are their personality and temperament before the loss and how dependent they were on the relationship to the deceased,” Konigsberg writes.

Davis knows one widow who even nine years after her husband’s death could not imagine remarrying. But through AWP and connecting with other widows, Davis started laughing and smiling again.

“I didn’t have the thought that my husband was dead through my brain all the time,” she said. “I’ve gone through the grief of it all. I want to help other women through that process. I can struggle, and I can fall down, but someone’s going to help me back up. I can get up and face the day.”