Ursula Palmer's life-changing call came on Jan. 2, 2008.
She was hard at work and anxiously waiting to hear from her husband, Sgt. 1st Class Collin Bowen, deployed in support of Operation Enduring Freedom in Khost Province, Afghanistan.
Up until that moment, Collin managed to call every day -- fulfilling a promise he made to his wife before leaving. Their conversations didn't last long, but the sound of Collin's voice assured Ursula that he was OK, she said.
Deployed as a member of the Maryland National Guard’s 1st Battalion, 175th Infantry Regiment, Collin proved himself to be an extraordinary Soldier and leader, Collin's former 1st Sgt. Jeffrey Lowe wrote in a message sent to the family. Collin was committed to helping the people of Afghanistan and fulfilling the Army's mission, regardless of the difficulty.
"I gave myself every excuse. I told myself his phone battery just died, or there were no satellites available," Ursula said, as she tried to lessen her concern.
When her phone finally rang, Ursula looked at the time. It was 1:30 p.m. when she raised the phone to her ear. The caller identified himself as an Army colonel, which was one of the last things Ursula could remember from the call, she said.
"It was at that moment, I knew something had happened," she said. "That call changed my entire life."
April 5 is Gold Star Spouses Day -- a solemn reminder of all the military men and women who lost their lives and the loved ones they left behind.
As a Gold Star wife, Ursula persevered through the pain. Serving as the vice president for the Gold Star Wives of America Arlington chapter, and as a Capitol Hill fellow, Ursula is determined to be a voice for all service members, veterans, and military families.
A chance meeting
Ursula was working toward her master’s degree at the University of Maryland Baltimore County and teaching Spanish to undergraduate students when she first met Collin, she said. As a Colombian that barely knew any English at the time, she recalled the fear she had when she first started teaching.
From the moment Collin entered the room, Ursula was taken back by his handsome demeanor, she said. Serving as a member of the National Guard, Collin was working toward his degree while simultaneously supporting his two daughters from a previous marriage.
As his instructor, Ursula didn't take much interest in Collin, she said. However, she did notice when he unexpectedly requested to switch classes to attend an easier course.
During the next semester, Collin found his way back to her class. In an attempt to court her, he would secretly profess his interest in many of his writing assignments, she recalled. To this day, Ursula still keeps the papers he wrote.
Once the course was over, the two continued to talk through the summer and eventually became a couple. Initially, she expressed her concern about starting a relationship with a military man, she said. She already had lost a nephew in a helicopter accident while serving in the Colombian Air Force.
"My dad never wanted me to be with a military man. They have a rough life and [might] end up dying like my nephew," she said. "There is nothing you can do when that [special] person shows up in front of you," Ursula added, commenting on her decision to be with Collin.
After a year and a half, the two married and later had a daughter of their own.
Determined to serve
Throughout their relationship, one thing was for sure -- Collin loved serving his country, Ursula said. Collin was 18 years old when he first enlisted in the Army, and he relished the opportunity to share his passion for service with his new Army wife.
"I had to grow into the [Army] life because it was scary for me in the beginning," she said. "I came to respect and understand the sacrifices the military makes and what it means to be a Soldier."
But it was the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, that drove Collin to want to do more, Ursula said. Collin got his chance later in November 2006, when he volunteered for a deployment to Afghanistan..
"Collin said, 'I need to do this for my country,'" Ursula said. "He gave me every possible excuse to help me to feel more comfortable with his decision."
In the months leading up to his deployment, Collin took every opportunity to prepare his Soldiers for combat, Lowe wrote. During training, he would push himself and others beyond their limits. He always wanted one more repetition, one more training event, to make his squad better.
Collin continued to be a driving force the moment they arrived in theater, Lowe added. He continually fought back against complacency within the American forces, all while committing himself to help the Afghan security forces.
Through it all, Collin never wavered from the Army's mission, Lowe wrote. It was his dedication to the task that put Collin in, what would be his last, convoy mission on Jan. 2, 2008. He had just two weeks left in his deployment.
Brooke Army Medical Center
An improvised explosive device left Collin with severe burns on over half his body, including his face, head and extremities, Ursula said. Days after the call, she met her husband at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, Texas, where he received a total of 15 surgeries over the subsequent two and a half months.
"Collin was badly injured," she said. "We went from surgery to surgery, and things got worse. Everything started to fail -- his organs started to fail, and they put him on dialysis."
Weeks turned into months, and Ursula took note of the medications her husband would need to be on if his condition were to get worse. Days before March 14, he received one last procedure in an attempt to save his life.
"They told me he could be the first one to survive this surgery," Ursula said. A few days after his surgery, "I went to look at the medicines hanging from the IV. There were three out of the four medicines the nurse told me to look out for -- that's when I said, 'well, this is it.’
"I went and talked to his mom because this was not a decision I wanted to make by myself," Ursula added. "The most horrible thing anyone can see is their child dying."
After some deliberation with the medical staff, the family made the final decision to take Collin off life support and start him on morphine for the pain. Then, on March 14th at 1:03 a.m. he was gone.
"When he died, we lost more than a name on a citation," Lowe wrote. "We lost an extraordinary infantryman and leader. We lost someone who wanted to make everyone around him better."
A new path
With Collin gone, Ursula was alone to raise their then-3-year-old daughter, Gabriela. While it was difficult to lose him as a husband, missing him as a father was the hardest thing to accept, she said.
"You could see that [Gabriela] felt an absence," Ursula said. "Whenever one of Collin's friends would come to visit, she would immediately go and sit on their lap. It was her way to express that she was missing her father. It was heart-wrenching for me to see her reach to others ... just to feel his presence."
Ursula continued to grieve quietly, all while finding solace in her spiritual beliefs. She did everything she could to be strong for her daughter. After several months, she returned to work, just to get some structure back in her life.
Ursula also found support through various Gold Star wives nonprofits and support groups, she said. That is around the time she crossed paths with Vivianne Wersel during an event in Washington, D.C. They instantly became friends.
Vivianne had lost her husband, Marine Corps Lt. Col. Richard Wersel Jr. on Feb. 4, 2005, just one week after returning from Iraq. She had two younger children at the time of his death. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan resulted in many "younger" widows to be left behind, Vivianne said.
"The Gold Star Wives of America was an avenue to connect with other widows; however, the average age was from the Vietnam-war era. Their day-to-day activities were not the same as ours,” Vivianne said.
The national organization was founded in 1945 by Marie Jordan Spear and became federally chartered by Eleanor Roosevelt, who was one of the original members, Vivianne said.
"It is so imperative to keep this organization going for what it stands for -- helping other military widows and their children," she said.
"We realized we could not attend their monthly meetings as our children had scheduled activities, or it was too far to drive. Moreover, we did not have much in common, except [for being] military widows," Vivianne added.
Recognizing a need, Ursula, Vivianne, and Lisa Doring, a Marine Corps widow, started laying the groundwork for the Arlington chapter, which was later approved by the national organization in 2012.
The Arlington chapter would leverage technology and appeal to the post 9-11 military widows who lost a loved one while on active duty, or in the result of a service-connected disability with no distinction of death versus killed, said Vivianne, the chapter's president.
"Community is important," Ursula said. "We all share loss -- we all share this feeling of being left behind, either by ourselves or with children. It is easier to simply sit down next to another Gold Star wife. You don't even have to say anything, and you feel understood."
The virtual chapter provided a sense of connection and family, Ursula said. Through the chapter's private Facebook group, spouses can ask questions or request support.
"Many of our fallen are buried in [Arlington National Cemetery] but their families do not live in the area," Ursula said. "Anniversaries and other special days come, but they are not able to go out and put a couple of flowers in their [loved one's] grave. It is simple to do that for them, and we try to help in any way that we can."
Whether it is grieving over the loss of a loved one or dealing with another hardship, having a community is important, Ursula emphasized. People should always reach out for help during a time of need.
"There are so many, so many organizations out there," she said. "Without many of these communities and people, I wouldn't have been able to do it. If you just reach out, someone will be there to help."
Fighting for others
In addition to finding support and building a support network for others, Ursula was able to find love once again.
After a brief introduction to Col. Tim Palmer, an active-duty Soldier supporting the Army assistant secretary of for manpower and reserve affairs, the two became close. Initially, moving on was hard for Ursula, but at no point did she feel her choice would negatively impact Collin's sacrifice, she said.
"You have to show everyone that you are a strong woman and a strong Gold Star wife," she said. "You can be an example for others … without forgetting their sacrifice."
Committed to Ursula, Tim did all he could to show his support and respect to her late husband, Ursula said. The two eventually got married and later gifted Gabriela with a new brother named Ian.
"Both Tim and his family found any way they could to honor Collin's memory. I never thought I would have this complete support of him and my daughter. I was able to move forward and be happy," Ursula said.
Along with finding new love, Ursula felt compelled to do more to support the military, veteran, and military spouse communities, she said. With the Gold Star Arlington chapter in full swing, she found another opportunity with HillVets, a nonprofit group dedicated to bipartisan veterans and supporters, interested in engaging in policy, politics, or government.
After completing the organization's leadership course last year, Ursula found a placement in Capitol Hill. She started working on a policy to bolster entitlements for Gold Star spouses, along with implementing changes to military spousal employment.
"In my case, I have two master's degrees, and I cannot find a job that matches my qualifications," Ursula said. As a widow, "the moment I remarried, I lost my preference as a Gold Star spouse. Why wouldn't I still have this preference?"
Ursula acknowledged the many initiatives within the military and civilian sectors that provide support to the veteran and spouse communities. However, she feels that many of them fall short when it comes to supporting spouses and veterans with higher educations.
"I want to work for the entire veteran community," she said. "All I want is to continue to serve."