By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
"If someone knows you're an Army widow, they think you're loaded," says Private Charlotte Spencer, a thin, big-eyed 22-year-old whose husband, Private Clarence Spencer of Fort Worth—an all-district football star at Dunbar High School—was killed last year in Bilad during his fourth Iraq tour.
Aside from money, one of the most common topics among the younger widows is dating. "These are young women, and they're going to want to date again," Busch says. "They're questioning—are people going to judge me? It's hard on them." Some people criticize the women for going out with other men too early, while others begin asking within months when they'll "get out there again." Shields recalls that someone in her husband's funeral procession shook her hand and said, "You're such a young widow. You should marry again." When she eventually did start seeing someone, a soldier bound for Afghanistan, he broke up with her. "He said [if something happened to him] he couldn't do that to me," she says. "I think it's really that he didn't want to be with me because he thought something would happen to him—like I'm smallpox."
Spencer says people have looked askance at her for dating, but she shrugs it off. "I'm like, 'Hey, I'm not gonna deprive myself for the rest of my life.'"
The Gold Star Center's camp is held at a cabin on Cedar Creek Lake outside Gun Barrel City, about an hour southeast of Dallas. While children who have lost relatives in the war play on the slide by the lake, a group of widows and parents sit on a wooden deck overlooking the water. Mother's Day, Father's Day and Memorial Day loom on the horizon, and the pain is intensifying, rising in waves. For Matthew and Pamela Brown, it's a particularly difficult time. Their 22-year-old son, Anthony David Ewing, was killed during his second tour in Iraq last year on May 28. In June, just weeks after the anniversary, their older son will deploy for his third tour as a combat medic with the 1st Cavalry Division.
"It's a very tense moment," Matthew says. "We don't want him to go again. We don't want to lose him too. We just pray he comes back."
"And comes back the same person," Pamela adds, her eyes tearing up. "A lot of his buddies—there's a hollowness in their faces." She didn't want either of her sons to join the Army, but since they were young boys playing videogames and blowing up anthills, they longed to follow in their grandfather and father's military footsteps. When Anthony was killed by a bomb on his way to a helicopter crash site, his older brother was back at Fort Hood. He blames himself for not being there to help Anthony, their parents say, and chose to do a third tour in part to honor the little brother he was unable to save. Like other soldiers, the Browns say, he's determined to go back out of a sense of honor and duty that may seem cliché to non-military people but to them is supremely meaningful.
As Pamela talks about Anthony, Jeré Beal, whose son was killed by insurgents, and Joy Priest, whose soldier daughter committed suicide in Taji, listen and nod. Finá Alexander sits beside Pamela and rubs her back.
"It's good to hear how y'all feel," Alexander says, "because now I understand how my mother-in-law feels." When her husband returned from Iraq with fatal burns, she and her mother-in-law visited him in a San Antonio hospital. The only way she could recognize him was by looking into his eyes.
"I feel for you," Pamela tells her. "Because your husband suffered..."
Alexander nods. "You see the soldiers who are missing arms, legs—I'm thankful because if George had to go around like that, his spirit would have been gone."
Alexander, Priest and Beal agree that the worst moment was telling the children who loved the soldiers that they were gone. For Alexander, it was explaining to her 8-year-old son that his father had died following surgery. For Priest, it was telling her granddaughter Skylar that her favorite aunt wasn't coming home. Beal nods, recalling her own experience.
"To tell a 6-year-old that her daddy won't ever be back—it's something you'll never get over," she says. "The bloodcurdling scream goes straight to your soul."
Inside the camp common room, a group of kids listen intently to Damion Andrews, a tall, handsome Army staff sergeant who has done two tours in Iraq and whose wife is a Gold Star Center staffer. Busch invited him to camp so the kids could learn more about their fathers, a goal she also pursues by encouraging each family to have its soldier's buddies write letters to the children about their dads. Andrews stands in the center of the room, patiently answering the children's questions. Most of them, like Finá Alexander's son J'Sai, want to know if he knew their fathers.
"I don't remember everyone's names because the Army is so big," Andrews explains. "But maybe if I saw his picture I'd recognize him."