By Kari Hawkins, Redstone Rocket staffOctober 8, 2008
On Tuesday mornings, a group of women gather at the Bicentennial Chapel to discuss their lives - the blessings, the struggles, the surprises, the disappointments -- that come with being a member of a select group of Army wives.
These women have endured a loss that bonds them to each other forever - the loss of their husbands to war.
Tiffany Little is the widow of Spc. Kyle A. Little, 20, who died May 8, 2007, in Salman Pak, Iraq, just north of Baghdad, of wounds suffered when an improvised explosive device detonated near his vehicle. He was assigned to Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 3rd Infantry Division, Fort Benning, Ga.
Emily McFall is the widow of Staff Sgt. Thomas McFall, 36, who died May 28, 2007, in Baghdad, Iraq, from wounds sustained when an improvised explosive device detonated near his position during a dismounted patrol. He was assigned to the 1st Battalion, 38th Infantry Regiment, 4th Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division (one of two Stryker Brigade Combat Teams), Fort Lewis, Wash.
Jennifer "Jenna" Henderson is the widow of Sgt. 1st Class Christopher Henderson, 35, who died June 17, 2007, in Panjway, Afghanistan, from wounds sustained when an explosive device detonated near his vehicle. He was assigned to the 4th Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division at Fort Lewis, but attached to the 1st Brigade, 1st Infantry Division (Transition Team), Fort Riley, Kan.
The three women, who have moved their families to North Alabama following the deaths of their husbands, have joined together to form a widow's support group known as My Soldier, My Fallen Hero, a phrase taken from a military camouflage purse that Henderson carries with her. The group meets at 9:30 a.m. every Tuesday at Bicentennial Chapel, and has the support of chapel staff as well as Army Community Service.
"This group is for widows of today's military," said Henderson, who was in a similar support group with McFall at Fort Lewis.
"This is hard to talk about with someone who hasn't gone through it. Together, we can share our stories and talk about how we get through this loss. When this happens, everything in your life changes - your eating habits change, your sleeping habits change, your TV habits change. We can understand that and help each other through the changes."
The women want to extend their group to other military widows in North Alabama.
"We know there are other women out there who might need a group like this," McFall said. "But it's hard to find them. We hope we can get the word out to other widows."
The group is loosely organized, with meetings involving a "Round Robin" discussion of anything by anyone in the group. They hope to add other activities, such as monthly family get-togethers and quarterly events. The group is not only a support group, but a way for widows to make friends with others who share their experience.
"A lot of friends disappear when this happens," McFall said. "Other women you know through the military are fearful that this could happen to them. You become their worst nightmare. You also lose the connection to the military and the military lifestyle that has been your life, and you can't help hoping again for that close knit military family."
The day the women learned of their loss is still a fresh memory for all of them.
Little was three months pregnant with daughter Kylee and living at Ft. Benning when Soldiers came to tell her at work that her husband had been killed.
"I don't think there's anyway I could have made it through that if I hadn't had our baby to think about. Kylee has given me a reason to hope. And taking care of a baby keeps me from having a lot of time to think about what has happened," she said.
McFall learned of her husband's death at 7 a.m. on Memorial Day 2007, when her doorbell rang. She answered the door, with her 15-year-old son Austin nearby and her other two children - 7-year-old Elizabeth and 3-year-old Matthew - still sleeping.
"My husband told me I would get a call if he was injured. He said if Soldiers came to my door, that would mean he was dead," she recalled. "But I still remember asking them 'Is he injured''"
And, Henderson got the news of her husband's death on Father's Day 2007.
"It was a little after lunch and I had heard a buddy of his had come back injured from Iraq," she said. "Chris had told me that 'If Soldiers come to your door in dress greens then I'm dead. If they come in BDUs, then I'm really, really injured.'
"I opened the door and there they were in their dress greens. I shut the door and took my daughter (Kayley, who was 8 at the time) out the back door to my neighbors. I then came back and opened the front door again. When they were telling me, I realized that the chaplain was crying. He saw the pictures around the house and recognized Chris, and made the connection that he had been my husband's chaplain at one time."
The women have more than their husbands' deaths in common. Their bond is also strengthened by a love for the military and their country, a sense of loss for the military lifestyle, the challenges of raising children as single parents, the struggles of day-to-day living without their husbands, the opportunities of rebuilding their lives and meeting new people, and their faith and hope for a better tomorrow. Together, they hope to rediscover a new way to live without their husbands and, perhaps, without the military.
"When Chris left, I felt like he was leaving me all alone," Henderson said. "I kept asking myself 'Who am I'' I didn't know. I still struggle with who I am, who I am to my community, who I am to myself. Part of me wants to go on with life and another part of me doesn't want to leave what I had with Chris."
For McFall, these days are filled with the thought that if her husband was still alive she and her family would be moving to their next duty station.
"I'm still married as far as I'm concerned. We should be PCSing somewhere right now," she said. "When this happens, you do have to sort of rediscover who you are and where you fit in."
"There's no owner's manual on how to be after you go through this," added Little.
But there are supportive friends and family who can help widows recover from the loss of their Soldier, and that's what the women hope to do through their support group. For them, much of that recovery started with their own family.
"My dad was a Marine and he helped me a lot," said Little, whose family is from Priceville and who now lives in Hartselle where her dad also lives. "I remember just floating through the days after my husband's death. My dad would tell me 'You need to do this' or 'You need to do that,'" she recalled.
Henderson, whose dad served in the Army, and McFall, who herself served six years in the Army, also relied on the strength of their family. McFall now lives close to her hometown of Hoover, where her family still lives. Henderson moved to North Alabama at the urging of McFall.
While Henderson and McFall already knew each other when they moved to North Alabama, McFall happened to find Little through a search on MySpace.com after learning about her through the VFW in Decatur. All three women said having to care for their children also forced them to go on with their lives.
"The day after we got the news, I had my kids go to school," McFall said. "I told them we had to keep the routine, that we couldn't fall apart."
Little's husband is buried in a cemetery near his hometown in Massachusetts, McFall's husband is buried in the Riverside National Cemetery in his hometown in California and Henderson's husband's ashes are buried in Section 60 at Arlington National Cemetery.
"It took me three months to decide," she said. "He was killed in June and we buried him in August. He needed a special place and that was the most special place I could think of."
Henderson and her daughter will be featured in an HBO documentary feature about Section 60, an area at Arlington where servicemembers killed in Iraq or Afghanistan are buried. It will air Oct. 13 at 9 p.m.
"The documentary gives a little about the section and then it talks about some of the families who have Soldiers buried there," Henderson said. "It's about getting public awareness of the stories behind the Soldiers and their families. It's about what happens to the families after their loss."
For Henderson, Little and McFall, rebuilding their lives in new communities comes with a lot of challenges and opportunities. It also means making new friends outside the military and answering the inevitable questions about their husbands.
"It's a mixed blessing," McFall said. "I want people to know, but then I don't. You're busy trying to process this whole thing and go on with your life, and then somebody comes up to you and says 'I'm so sorry' and then you have all the grief and loss to deal with again. We don't want to remember their death. We want to remember their life."
Editor's note: For more information about the My Soldier, My Fallen Hero widow support group, contact Henderson at email@example.com or 803-553-0475. Information on family support groups can also be obtained from Chaplain (Lt. Col.) James Benson at 842-2174 or firstname.lastname@example.org and from Army Community Service at 876-5397.