From Blue Star to Gold: For military spouses and families, death changes everything

Part III

Quickly forgotten, families of the fallen struggle with loss, loneliness

By Ken Olsen

(Copyright 2010, All Rights Reserved)

Shellie Smith buried her husband near Clayton, N.C. Army 1st Lt. Justin Smith could have been laid to rest at Arlington National Cemetery, but he always said sweet tea and Southern food were the best. “So I buried him in the South, near me and the boys,” says Shellie, whose husband was killed by a suicide car bomber in Iraq. “I like it where I can go have a picnic with him if I want to.”

That’s where the poetry ends for Shellie, one of thousands of women who have heard the knock on the door that plunged them into the world of widowhood, single parenting, the military bureaucracy they feel neither wants them nor knows how to deal with them, and a nation that too quickly forgets the surviving families. They find solace in each other, but old friendships fracture and fade.

“You realize this is as good as it gets,” Shellie says. “I almost think that’s the hardest.”

Shellie got word of her husband’s death the night of her oldest son’s birthday. She was exhausted, sleeping on the living-room couch after putting her youngest son, then an infant, down for the night. Unable to rouse her, the military detail went to the apartment next door and woke Shellie’s grandmother, who was a week past heart surgery. Her grandmother made the men wait while she called the lieutenant’s parents. And then they were back, “bamming at my door,” Shellie says.

She peeked out the window, saw a man in a military-style coat and said, “No way.” She checked his car to see if it had government license plates. She looked back at her porch and saw a second man with a Bible in his hand. She tried to remain calm. She opened the door, made eye contact, and asked for a minute. She called her parents twice, angry that they didn’t answer. She reached her aunt, who said, “I’m on my way.” She went back to the living room, suddenly aware of her mismatched T-shirt and pants, and covered herself with a blanket.

These are things she remembers.

“How?” she asked, flatly.

“We think an IED.”

“Are you sure?”

Shellie held herself together until her aunt fetched her infant son and placed him in her lap. Seeing Justin’s features in his face brought tears.

“I was apologizing to them for crying,” Shellie says.

Her father arrived, also in tears, and asked, “Are you sure it’s the right Justin?”

The military detail left them brochures about grief.

Still in shock, Shellie sent 8-year-old Spensir to school the next morning without telling him. Her son from a previous marriage, Spensir considered Justin his father. He came home to a living room full of people and thought his mother had organized a surprise party for him. He went to the kitchen, surveyed his birthday cards, then looked at his mother and said, “My daddy’s dead, isn’t he? I told you he wouldn’t come back.”

“That was the worst,” Shellie says. “Telling my child.”

“A Feeling”

Shellie is surprised she even met Justin. She didn’t go to dance clubs, yet found herself at the High Five in downtown Raleigh, N.C., with a friend one night in August 2003, where she saw a tall, handsome man working magic on the dance floor. She couldn’t help but join him. “I’m a white Baptist girl,” she says, laughing. “We don’t dance. Our hips don’t move that way.”

By the end of the evening, Shellie had given Justin her telephone number – also out of character for her. “I had a feeling,” she says.

After Justin died, she ran into a man who had been with him at the club. “He said, ‘Are you that girl Justin met at the High Five that night?’ We all told him he was crazy. And he told us, ‘I have a feeling about that woman.’”

Headstrong and charming, Justin was earning his bachelor’s degree, and he owed the Army another eight years after he graduated. Shellie decided the military life was worth it. He returned to active duty a few months after they married, and in October 2004, Ayden was born. Justin carried his son’s picture to the war zone the following spring and showed it to everyone. “He would walk up to the regimental commander and say, ‘Colonel, do you want to see something to make you smile?’ And he would show him Ayden’s picture,” Shellie says.

Three weeks before he was supposed to come home on R&R, Justin and his men were running a checkpoint on the outskirts of Baghdad. They stopped a car. Justin approached it, glanced inside and started to back away. The car exploded, killing Justin, his Iraqi interpreter and three other soldiers.

“He was 225 pounds, muscular, 6-foot tall,” Shellie says. “I can see him in full battle rattle, out there sweating in the heat, and the next thing he knows he’s standing in heaven saying, ‘Whoa, dude.’”

The Scarlet W

Fallen soldiers’ wives find their identities abruptly changed. They are no longer Ann, Casey or Shellie. Or Dan’s, Joshua’s or Justin’s wife. They are widows.

“There was this feeling that my only identity was being a widow,” says Ann Scheibner, whose husband was killed during his last combat mission in Iraq. “I couldn’t run into anybody where that isn’t what it was about.”

Casey Rodgers’ journey into this upside-down world began at her husband’s funeral when a well-wisher gave her a book about being a widow. “Why would you give somebody something with ‘widow’ on it at a funeral?” Casey says, pacing the living-room floor of her home near Sanford, N.C., where a high‑ceilinged wall is covered with photos of her late husband and their family. “Treat me like you would if I was still Casey Rodgers with my husband.”

Joshua Rodgers died when the helicopter he was piloting was shot down in Afghanistan in May 2007. After the funeral, Casey quit receiving invitations from her social circle. She was dropped from friends’ e-mail chains. People became uncomfortable when she mentioned her late husband’s name. “You can’t be a widow in front of other people,” she says.

She was surprised to find her presence threatening to some married women. She quit wearing high heels to church. She learned to speak to the woman first when approached by a couple. The cheap suspicion is insulting. “Don’t assume I want your husband just because I don’t have one,” she says. “Get to know me like you would get to know somebody else.”

Casey finds even her relationship with the military awkward and strained, a surprising discovery she made when she went to greet her late husband’s unit after its return from Afghanistan in early 2008. “I knew it was important to them to know I was still standing, because if families were destroyed by it, how were they going to be able to go back over there and do their job?” Casey says. Commanders avoided her and sent “a poor old captain over to ask how I was doing. Even the Army doesn’t know how to deal with widows.”

She avoids telling strangers she’s a widow. “Everything stops, everything changes, when they find out,” Casey says. “Half the time, they just up and walk away. If they think it’s hard for them, what do they think it’s like for me?”

This is called the “Scarlet W” in military circles, says journalist and Army wife Rebekah Sanderlin. “One of my friends tells me if she goes somewhere there’s not a military base and tells somebody her husband was killed in Iraq, she’s kind of a freak show,” Sanderlin says.

Some military spouses are uncomfortable around widows. “They think it’s some sort of jinx,” Sanderlin says. “A lot of wives will not watch the news. If you’re in the ignorance-is-bliss group and you’re sitting across from a widow, you can’t really deny it. I don’t think they want to shun the widows, it’s just the discomfort.”

Families of the Fallen

People who work with families of fallen soldiers say this awkwardness and alienation is common not only for widows but also for the parents and siblings of those killed in war.

“There is this initial crush where the family is often deluged with gifts of food and flowers,” says Ami Neiberger-Miller, public-relations officer for the Transition Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS). “The funeral happens, and all of that goes away. People think, maybe we shouldn’t invite this widow or that family to our Christmas party because they’re still sad.”

She still hasn’t reconnected with the longtime friends she was vacationing with in 2007 when she learned her brother Chris – a soldier on his first deployment – had been killed by a roadside bomb in Baghdad.

People are also uncomfortable when widows and other survivors talk about the loved ones they’ve lost. “Unfortunately, society interprets us wanting to talk about our loved ones as, ‘we haven’t moved on,’ ‘we’re grieving too much,’ ‘we’ve been grieving too long’ or ‘we’re grieving in the wrong way,’” Neiberger-Miller says. “They tell us we need to see a doctor.”

Survivors, however, “don’t think grief is a mental illness. We think grief is the price you pay for losing someone.”

Families report mixed experiences with their casualty-assistance officers, and the military in general, in the wake of a loved one’s death. Part of the issue is the grueling process of doing all the military requires to make sure a servicemember’s remains are properly laid to rest and benefits started.

“The widow is suddenly put in a position to make a lot of decisions that are pretty jarring at a point where she is least equipped to deal with them,” says Neiberger-Miller, who contacted TAPS as she tried to deal with her brother’s death and later went to work for the nonprofit survivor-advocacy group.

As for the reception widows receive from their husband’s military unit, “it depends upon the training and support they have. I’ve seen commanders do a great job at reaching out.”

One came to Arlington National Cemetery over Memorial Day to talk to a widow while Neiberger-Miller was there. Other units are less comfortable, and may not know how to react.

“I think the leadership sets the tone,” she says.

Through all of this, it’s important to consider how circumstances may be different for military families. “Their loved one often died in a violent way. As a result, our families are all traumatic survivors.”

Single Parenting

Handpainted silver letters on the front door of Shellie Smith’s home say: “Family, Friends, Faith, Freedom.”

Anger, bitterness, loneliness and incomprehension have also lived at this address. “I’ve been pretty pissed off about it,” Shellie says. “The fact that his life was cut short makes me angry. The fact that his little boys don’t have a dad makes me mad.”

She must also help her children understand their loss. Her youngest son would say, “‘Let me just see him.’ And I said, ‘He’s in heaven.’ And Ayden would say, ‘So why can’t I go to heaven and see him?’”

Ayden is now beginning to understand that his daddy is gone. Shellie worries about him starting school this fall with students whose fathers are there for soccer games and class performances. “I’m trying to explain what death means,” Shellie says. “And why it’s final.”

Then there is the daunting task of raising children without a father. Spensir told Shellie he won’t know how to use the grill because he doesn’t have a daddy. And she doesn’t have anyone to help her shoulder the load. “My little one was sick a lot with ear infections,” Shellie says of her single-parenting struggles. “And it would be helpful to have a husband when you are puking.”

Well-meaning people push her to start a new relationship, offering the pat advice that widows loathe: “You’ll find somebody else.” Or, “It’s been four years – it’s time for you to move on. You’re still young – you’ll meet someone else. There’s still time for you to have more kids.”

“Their heart’s in the right place, but their mouth isn’t,” Shellie says. “Right now, people are asking why I’m not dating. I tell them, ‘The line of men looking for widows with two boys is empty.’ In reality, I have no energy for that.”

Shellie and her widow friends have dissected the difficulties of dating. “Let’s say the new guy comes along,” Shellie says. “First he has to love me. Then he has to love children that aren’t his. Then he has to deal with the fact that I still love my husband. And he will have to deal with the fact that my husband was a hero.”

Instead, she is moving to a house across the road from her parents and grandparents so her father can teach the boys to hunt and fish, and “they can explore and rip and run, like boys love to do.”

A Son’s Journey

Ann Scheibner didn’t have a chance to tell her 12-year-old son about his father’s death. Tyler answered the door when the military detail came with the news. Dan was killed on his last combat mission, a patrol he volunteered to join to help the new platoon sergeant learn the dangerous terrain his unit patrolled in Iraq.

“With such an awful thing, my son came over and put his arms around me, and said, ‘We’re going to be OK, Mom,’” Ann says. “He was already taking on that role when his dad deployed.”

Ann had spoken to Dan that morning. He was done with combat missions. He was excited about his transfer to a less dangerous job at headquarters after his unit took heavy casualties. At the last minute, however, he took an Iraqi interpreter’s seat in the back of a Hummer and was the only one killed by a roadside bomb that exploded as the patrol returned to base.

For Ann, the first week after her husband’s death was particularly awful. Getting military IDs changed, signing paperwork, dealing with her casualty-assistance officer.

“There’s a lot of things that were so wrong and done so poorly,” says Ann, who had been helping the spouses of other soldiers in Dan’s unit deal with their husbands’ deaths just a month earlier. “A lot of times, I was telling my casualty-assistance officer things that needed to be done. In a lot of circumstances, I was trying to make him feel comfortable.”

She also worries about the way the door was slammed on her son’s grief. Tyler established a rapport with a child psychologist at Fort Lewis, Wash., and then arrived for an appointment one afternoon to find that the psychologist no longer worked there. The staff told Tyler he could start over with another counselor. He turned and told his mother they were leaving. “To this day, my son won’t talk to anybody” about his father’s death, Ann says.

“The kids are the ones who are forgotten,” Casey adds. “People say kids are resilient. Every day I worry about the girls. I have a widow friend whose 11-year-old is suicidal.”

Joshua was the kind of father who was out bouncing on the trampoline or splashing around a swimming pool with his daughters. His presence can’t be replaced. “He was just a big kid,” Casey says with a rare smile.

The Death Bureaucracy

If grief is not overwhelming enough, widows are awash in bureaucratic struggles from the moment they learn their spouse has been killed. Casey had to call for her senator’s help so she could accompany her husband’s body on a flight from Dover Air Force Base to his family’s home in Nevada after the military repeatedly rebuffed her request.

Ann said she had to fight for months to get the active-duty health-care benefits she was entitled to receive for three years after Dan’s death. She also learned she would only receive half of the military pension Dan could have drawn if he hadn’t gone to Iraq. That essential financial help is temporary. It expires when Tyler is 18 – or, if he goes to college, 21. Social Security stops when he is 16.

Most egregious, however, was Ann’s battle to have her husband cremated. Dan’s urn was engraved with the wrong date of death, and the government refused to change it because it matched his death certificate, which was also incorrect.

“It was terrible,” Ann says. “I was trying to go home to bury my husband. And it wasn’t my mistake. Every other piece of paper, every other award, his Purple Heart – all of them had a different date. If they had all been the same, I wouldn’t have liked it, but I would have been understanding.”

Ann finally called TAPS. The group got the date on the urn changed, but her frustration from the ordeal lingers. “That’s what spouses, who are overwhelmed, are battling with the military,” Ann says. “Our soldiers and our families deserve more than that.”

The personal hurdles are just as daunting. Shellie floundered for three years after Justin died, in part because she lives an hour and a half north of Fort Bragg, N.C., and the nearest community of military widows. “I didn’t know anybody else like me,” she says.

That changed 18 months ago, when Shellie met Casey and another widow at an event for children of fallen soldiers. She’s discovered a bond like no other. “When another widow says she understands, I know she means that,” Shellie says. “Widows have credentials. They have gotten the same knock. They have cried the same tears.”

Widows share fears and feelings, and form a close-knit surrogate family that will drop everything to drive 100 miles at midnight to be with another widow whose child needs emergency surgery – as was the case when Shellie’s son was injured in an accident last spring.

Like widows, children are more comfortable around other children who have lost their parents, Shellie says. “I’ve heard my kids say to other kids, ‘Is your daddy in heaven? My daddy’s in heaven too.’”

Ann lost that connection after she moved back to Michigan two years ago so her son could be close to her late husband’s family. “I felt like it was the best place for him to be grounded,” she says. Still, it’s a struggle for her after having the support of military communities for 17 years. “Some of the loss is moving away from it all.”

That’s the dilemma facing Casey as she prepares to move her daughters back west. Last summer, she realized that Madison, Autumn and Ashlyn were happier in Nevada, when they visited Carson City, where she and Joshua became high-school sweethearts.

“I have a support system here,” Casey says, referring to her widow friends in the Fayetteville area. “But when my kids went home last summer, they just lit up.”

Now she’s preparing to make her way in a civilian community that has largely forgotten the wars.

Remember and Respect

That disconnect is especially harsh when it comes to a soldier’s death. A week after Justin died, Shellie went shopping for a dress to wear to his funeral. She overheard two men in a mall food court having a loud antiwar discussion. She ran out of patience, walked over, and pulled out Justin’s dog tags and wedding ring, which on a chain around her neck.

“I told them, ‘My husband gave his life seven days ago so you could sit in this food court and express your opinion as loudly as you want to and as freely as you want to, without thinking twice. I want you to remember why.”

Remember. Respect. At the heart of it all, that’s the widows’ simple request.

Shellie has since run into similar situations – strangers asking questions until they find out she is a military widow. Then they quiz her about her feelings on the war and the president.

“I tell them, ‘His death was personal. His death was not political,’” Shellie says. “Whether you believe in the war or not, whether you support it or not, it’s happening. The people involved in fighting the war are real, and the families are real. My children are without a daddy – and I live without a husband – so they can live and do and say whatever they want without any fear.”

This is Part Three of a special report featured in the September 2010 issue of The American Legion Magazine).

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About Veterans' Voices

Veterans Voices is produced by Ken Olsen, a freelance writer and author who frequently writes about military families and veterans issues for national magazines
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