By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
"This is mine and Hallgring's second deployment and I think we are more scared then the rest of them. I think that is because we know what to expect. One thing I do like is that I might get a lot of trigger time. I think that makes me crazy but I don't care. These motherfuckers are trying to kill us and I'll be damned if I go out without a fight. I'm going to try my hardest to go home to my family."
The next night, he scribbled a brief and desolate entry:
"I can't stand it here. These living conditions are unbelievable. I don't even know what I'm here for. What is the purpose of this war? I'm not fighting for my country. I'm fighting for the Iraqis. I left my family to come to this shithole—for what?"
Then, a week later, came this:
"Today has been one of the worst days of my life. First Sgt took a hit [from an IED] and lost his life. He has a wife and three kids. Our sector is bad. I'm so damn scared it's not even funny. I don't want to pop out of my hatch at all."
Around the time she was reeling from reading the journal, Stacey's casualty assistance officer recommended she get involved with the Gold Star Center. They were reaching out to Dallas-area families, he said, and it might be helpful. The first local meeting was held last November at the Army Reserve base in Grand Prairie. "I was the youngest one," Stacey recalls. "There were widows in their 40s, and the others were parents. I felt alone." But in December, the 50 or so grieving family members who met at Macaroni Grill included several widows close to her age. "I didn't realize there were so many young widows and mothers," she says. "About half of the North Texas widows are under 40." That dinner was a turning point.
"Before, I was grieving all alone," she says. "I've been able to meet others who are farther along than me, and they've actually begun to enjoy their lives again." One widow she met was 21 and lost her husband when she was four months pregnant. "It made me realize how lucky I am," Stacey says. "Jonathan had four weeks with Daniel—he cut the cord when he was born." In addition to attending the local support groups, in the past six months she has also driven to Killeen for dinners, media interviews and other Gold Star events. She looks forward to having not only local support groups in the Dallas area, but a local Gold Star Center, as well.
When the widows get together, they talk about their husbands and how they're coping without them. But they also talk about challenges with children, in-laws and money, as well as shopping, makeup and dating. Shields vented about how, shortly after her husband's death, her son came home from Sunday school and said they'd learned that anyone who kills another person is going to hell. He wondered: Is daddy in hell?
"I went to Ecclesiastes 3, you know, 'There's a time for war, a time for peace,'" Shields says, "so he could understand that we don't kill people because we hate. That it's a protection thing."
At some point, the widows say friends and family tire of hearing about what they're going through and grow impatient with their grief. Several have had church members or congregations impose time limits on their mourning. "It's biblical to grieve for 30 days," people told Stacey in the months after Jonathan's death. As the anniversary approaches on Memorial Day, she's beginning to hear it again. "It's been a year," they tell her. "When will you move on?" Fellow widows and other bereaved family members commiserate about such experiences and trade stories about the various phases of grief. Stacey, who majored in psychology, was surprised to find that she didn't go through the phases in order. Instead, anger, denial and depression seemed to come up interchangeably and with no apparent pattern. Others cycle through what they call periods of "acting out," using alcohol, tattoos or "shopping therapy." For some, talking about their husbands and feelings comes naturally, while others are more comfortable listening, especially at first.
Finá Alexander—whose husband, Staff Sergeant George Alexander Jr., became the Iraq war's 2,000th soldier to die after he suffered severe burns in a bomb blast in Samarra in 2005—has been resisting writing about her loss as recommended by the group. "I don't even know where to start," she says. "I look at the journal, and then I don't write anything." She initially associated support groups with "crazy people" and was convinced that she and her son would be fine as long as they got away from all of the military reminders in Killeen. Yet when they arrived in Dallas, they found themselves feeling isolated and misunderstood. She hesitated to attend the group when the center reached out to her but says meeting other widows and families has been comforting.
One thing many widows share is tension and conflict surrounding the money they receive from the government. One of the women says her in-laws questioned why she got the $100,000 payment, claiming it was their son's and should have gone to them. Others tell of suddenly being besieged by family and friends who want money. Shields recalls one woman pulling her aside and scolding her for buying a new car.