By Jim Schutze
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On this day in April, Busch and her staff are busy with multiple projects. There's the Mother's Day camp coming up in May, the constant fund-raising (the center is funded not by the government but by the group's nonprofit, HUGSS—Helping to Unite Gold Star Survivors) and regular training for casualty assistance officers, who are charged with notifying family members of soldiers' deaths and helping them to sort through complex Army paperwork and benefits.
When the war began, assistance officers received just four hours of training, and Busch often heard stories of botched death notifications and bungled paperwork. She sprung into action, brainstorming and speaking with officers and Army higher-ups. Now, largely because of the Gold Star Center's efforts, assistance officers receive 40 hours of training, including testimonials from the widows and other family members. The training has been implemented to some degree at bases across the country. Group members were also active in the lobbying that in 2005 led Congress to raise the Army's "death tax"—the amount a widowed family receives—from $12,000 to $100,000, as well as increasing the life insurance payout from $250,000 to $400,000.
As the war marches into its sixth year, the Gold Star Center's work is growing. Its leaders aim to create satellite centers in communities across the country, beginning with the Dallas-Fort Worth area. A Dallas map in the middle of the center's Fort Hood office is marked with dozens of thumbtacks to represent the surviving family members of soldiers who have died.
Busch spent several months searching for a place to hold Dallas support group meetings and settled on Maplewood Baptist Church in North Richland Hills. In April, she had her sights set on the upcoming Mother's Day camp. Featuring fishing, water sports and s'mores around the campfire, the weekend would also include grief counseling. For Busch, who has no formal psychology training and doesn't purport to be a counselor (the center refers people for formal treatment), it's vital to address not just a lone widow's pain, but that of the entire family.
Roughly half the men who are serving in Iraq and Afghanistan have children, compared with just a third of the mostly drafted force that fought in Vietnam. Today's military comprises large numbers of career soldiers who chose the service as a way of life and a means of supporting their families. So for Busch, the key to preventing massive social breakdown as the wars claim more lives is by taking care of all those affected, including children.
"When you're a grieving mother, it's like looking through a frosted window," she says. "The frost is the grief. Sometimes you're aware of the child's needs, and sometimes the grief is in the way. The camp is about helping families learn to grieve together."
DeAnna Shields is a 34-year-old mother of three who lost her husband, Army Sergeant Jonathan B. Shields, in November 2004 during the invasion of Fallujah, Iraq. She crosses her legs as she sits on the center's couch, reaches for a box of tissues and talks about the disbelieving numbness that enveloped her after his death. She felt alone and separate from her children, avoiding conversation because she wasn't sure what to tell them.
"You want to hold your kids and say, 'It's gonna be OK,' but you know you're lying," she explains. Then she'd assuage her guilt by taking the kids to the mall and buying them anything they wanted; she ended up spending $2,000. The people close to Shields worried, wondering when she would accept that her husband wasn't coming back.
"Family and friends would say they hated to come to my house because I talked like he was gonna come home any minute," she says. "I came to [the group] in January 2007, and that's when I finally started grieving. The best thing was knowing that it wasn't just my story. Before, the only people I could identify with were people on the news who I'd never meet."
After Jonathan completed two weeks' leave and returned to finish his tour in December 2006, Stacey fell into a deep depression. She busied herself with her psychology classes at Dallas Baptist University and with Daniel, who was becoming a precocious child with the same headstrong toughness that his father showed as a boy. Inside, though, she felt as if she were drowning. When she found herself considering shutting herself in the car with the engine running, she went to see a doctor and was briefly prescribed antidepressants.
She tried to think of her husband during happy times, but her mind would often return to the last night he was home. He hadn't slept at all, and at one point she awoke to see him standing by Daniel's crib, sobbing as he held his son. His brief e-mails from Iraq were infrequent. He told her that because he was involved in a joint mission with British forces, everything was classified and there was scant online access.
She began to feel more hopeful as spring approached. She graduated with her psychology degree on May 11, 2007, and looked forward to being a stay-at-home mom for a while. On the Sunday before Memorial Day, she got an upbeat e-mail from Jonathan titled "Love ya!"