By Army Sgt. 1st Class Michael J. Carden
American Forces Press Service
Sept. 28, 2009 - Military widows and widowers struggle with their losses well after the notes of "Taps" have faded and their loved one is laid to rest. Dealing with such heartbreak can be a long, confusing endeavor, and often the only hope for relief is to find others who can relate. Surviving spouses here have devoted themselves to helping each other manage their grief. Each member of the Surviving Spouses Support Group lost a significant other suddenly and much too soon, but they found support from each other and in knowing they're not alone after all.
"We came together looking for people to identify with and relate to," said Deborah May, the widow of Marine Corps Staff Sgt. Donald C. May Jr. "The important thing to understand is you're not alone."
May's husband died in March 2003 in a tank roll-over accident in Iraq. He was the 69th American servicemember killed in Iraq or Afghanistan after Sept. 11, 2001. At the time, she was pregnant with their third child and wanted to find others who understood what she was going through.
She relocated her family here from southern California, because it's the last place her family was together. She didn't find the support she was looking for right away, she said, but was content just to be in the Marine community.
"I had very small children when my husband died," May said. "I wanted them to live in a world where there were Marines, and wanted my children to see them around. That's the way it was supposed to be."
Eventually, May and other widows found each other. They began meeting regularly, and grieving became a little easier, she said. The support group began in April 2006 and offers several facets of support to its members. The group provides an outlet for surviving spouses to vent their frustrations and learn from one another's experiences. It's also a way for them to confront and overcome their issues and share resources.
May recently learned at one of the group's bimonthly meetings that she qualifies for child care services here at Marine Corps expense. Child care services officials had disputed her eligibility because they'd never dealt with her kind of situation, she said.
"My husband died in 2003, and the [Marine Corps] questioned whether or not I could have used child services for my children," she said. "Six years later, in one of our meetings, I found out that not only could I have used the services, but the Marine Corps would have paid for it.
"That's why we always try to stay on top of our entitlements as widows and widowers and make sure everyone in the group has the information."
Almost every meeting includes a speaker from the installation's command and staff sections to share new information and insights with the group. Casualty assistance officers, chaplains, Marine Corps and Navy lawyers and public affairs officers regularly attend the meetings, said Vivianne Wersel, widow of Marine Corps Lt. Col. Richard Wersel. Survivors technically aren't part of the military, she added, so widows and widowers of fallen servicemembers often get left out.
"A lot of times there are resources that we're not aware of, so the only way we're going to be made aware is to have people from the different organizations come out," Wersel said. "What's available to us now that we're survivors isn't the same as when we were active duty spouses."
Wersel's husband returned from an Iraq deployment in February 2005. A week later, he collapsed in a gym and died suddenly of heart complications. "He went to work that morning and never came home," she said. "He hadn't even had time to turn in his gun or do his post-deployment medical screening."
Like May, Wersel said, she found herself isolated with no one to turn to. They had lots of questions pertaining to benefits and how they fit into the Marine Corps family as widows. But when they helped to establish their group and network of support, they realized they were also tackling another issue: the void of friendship.
Military widows have difficulty fitting not only into their military community, but also into society in general, Wersel said. She said awkwardness always is evident among people she meets when she introduces herself as a Marine widow. Within the support group, though, the members can be themselves without worrying about making others uncomfortable, she added.
"[The support group] is a place where we can say anything we want," Wersel said. "We're not going to be judged or get that certain look, and we can just be ourselves."
Jocephas "Jo" Rozier was married to his wife, Deltha, for 16 years before she died suddenly of brain trauma in October 2006. When she died, he lost his wife and his best friend, he said. Not having someone to confide in and rely on was one of the hardest aspects of his loss.
"In my personal experience, when you lose a spouse, you lose about 75 percent of your friend network," Rozier, a retired Marine Corps major, said. "That widow or widower finds himself alone in a very critical part of his life. Some things you talk about may sound distant or morbid, but in our group, we're perfectly normal."
Rozier was on active duty and deployed to Afghanistan at the time of his wife's death. In the following months, Rozier said, he began to notice his friends gradually becoming distant and starting to avoid him.
"I actually had a good friend of mine tell me talking with me about my issues was too much for him to handle -- that it was too hard for him," Rozier said. "As sad as it was, I really appreciated his honesty. I appreciate our group much more because of it."
Each member of the group shares a bond they feel is unique to survivors of fallen military members. They were looking for someone to relate to -- anyone who understood their grief or knew what it was to feel isolated and left behind. Although the emotional scars of their former lives may never fully heal, they've found comfort in knowing they're not alone.
"This is one of the few places where I can talk and just be me," Rozier said. "We're not looking for someone to solve our problems -- just someone to listen about what's going on."