Widows of Combatants Killed in Iraq, Afghanistan Meet
By Rudi Williams
American Forces Press Service
ARLINGTON, Virginia, Mar. 23, 2005 They'd talked on the telephone and in Internet chat rooms for a few months, but had never met face-to-face until March 22, when nearly 40 young widows of servicemen killed in Iraq and Afghanistan attended a luncheon sponsored by the Gold Star Wives here.
Betsy Jeffries carries her 11-month-old son, Joseph Jeffries II, at the Gold Star Wives luncheon March 22 in Arlington, Va. Her husband, Joseph A. Jeffries, was killed in Afghanistan on May 29, 2004. Photo by Rudi Williams
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
The organization is open to spouses of servicemembers who died on active duty or from a service-related disability.
The young widows came to the Washington area for a special family viewing of the "Faces of the Fallen" exhibit at the Women in Military Service for America Memorial that's located at the gateway to Arlington National Cemetery.
The exhibit consists of more than 1,300 portraits of men and women killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. The exhibit runs through Sept. 5 and represents fallen heroes from throughout the United States and its territories. Nearly 200 artists created "Faces of the Fallen".
"They came from all over the country, with one widow from Australia, one from Germany and one from Hawaii," said Rose E. Lee, president of the Potomac chapter of the Gold Star Wives and chair of the organization's legislative committee. "The lady from Germany came with her two children.
"Some people described it as a 'wonderful chaos' because there are so many kids -- about 15 children under the age of 5," said Lee, who was widowed more than 33 years ago when her husband, C.M. Lee, died in 1972. The Korean War veteran was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for heroism on the battlefield. "It gave these new young widows with their children and their mothers, fathers and mothers-in-law a chance to meet other widows."
Starting out with 35 reservations for the hotel's restaurant, the number of people wanting to attend the luncheon doubled to more than 70 within 24 hours. "Then I got more people calling, saying they wanted to come and bring their children and their family members, so we had 125 people," Lee said.
Among the widows was Betsy Jefferies, 21, who was five months pregnant when her husband, Joseph A. Jefferies, was killed on May 29, 2004, while serving in Afghanistan with the 320th Psychological Warfare Unit out of Portland, Ore. She said they'd been married for five months to the day.
"He was psychological operations attached to Special Forces at the time," said Jefferies, who lives in Beaverton, Ore.
"Numbness, denial" are the words she used to describe her feelings when she was told her husband had been killed in action. "I still live in denial," she said. "I didn't want to believe it - still don't."
She said the Gold Star Wives helps her to cope with her loss. "I live next door to another Gold Star wife," Jefferies noted. "It's good to have her there and to be able to talk to these other women. I can go online and write how I feel, and people will tell me that I'm normal. I don't need to stress out about what stage I'm at, because all of it is normal. Knowing that I'm not weird, or wrong, it's just normal. I'm not odd for feeling or doing or anything."
Jefferies said being a member of the Gold Star Wives makes her feel sane. She advises other young widows to seek out the organization. "And find someone, especially your own age," she said. "For me being married five months is different from someone who has been married for 15 years. They grieve for something they've lost. I grieve for something that I never had and I long to have - wish I could have had."
The 21-year-old widow said her husband was 21 when he was killed.
"His main goal in life was to have a family," Jefferies said, as she fought back tears. "He just wanted to be a dad. That's all he wanted. His main goal was to provide for his children.
"After we found out that we were pregnant, he was going to switch over to active duty to finish out his five years from the reserves," she said. "After that, he was thinking about being a firefighter or a policeman."
Tanya Mogensen, 30, of Pinebluff, N.C., said her husband, Sgt. 1st Class Robert J. Mogensen, was killed by an improvised explosive device explosion on May 29, 2004, in Afghanistan while serving as a weapons sergeant with the Green Berets.
It was his third trip to the battlefields of Afghanistan. In September 2001, he was wounded when a land mine explosion hit his convoy
"He went back to Afghanistan two more times," his wife noted. "He had to be out there with his fellow brothers. When he went back for the third time, I guess it was routine for me. It would have been a short deployment and it was right after we had our daughter. She was born on April 6, 2004, and he left 10 days after that.
"It never entered my mind that he would be killed," Mogensen said. "I was actually more afraid the second time when he went back. I didn't want him to go that time."
She said she was "numb" when the casualty officers told her that her husband was dead. "I felt like it was a bad dream," Mogensen said. "I thought how could this happen twice? Lightning doesn't strike twice in the same place. We'd just had a baby who was 8 weeks old when he died. I was angry that he was gone. It felt like a dream; it wasn't happening."
Now her children -- Josh, 11, Vanessa, 7, and Leilani, 11 months -- "are my life," Mogensen said. "I think he'd want me to live my life and give them a better quality of life. They keep me going, especially the baby, because the other two are in school and I'm at home with her. She keeps me busy. She's every bit of her dad, looks like him and everything."
She said it's an honor her husband is buried in Arlington national Cemetery, "because he'll never be lonely. "There will always be somebody who will be interested in who he was and what he did for this nation. So we should all be proud."
Mogensen recently joined the Gold Star Wives but said she'd prefer not being in the circumstance to qualify as a member.
Betty Lorick of Irmo, S.C., met her daughter-in-law, Jennifer McCollum, here to attend the luncheon and to view the exhibit together.
"She was four months pregnant when he died, so he never saw his son," said Lorick, whose son, Marine Corps Capt. Daniel McCollum, 28, was killed along with six others on Jan. 9, 2002, while serving as a C-130 transport co-pilot. Her grandson, Daniel McCollum Jr., was born on June 11, 2002.
Lorick said her daughter-in-law is "absolutely wonderful, and she has stayed very close to our family."
She said she and her daughter-in-law have leaned on each other ever since her son was killed. "We get strength from the other," Lorick said. "I can't say enough about her effort to keep me and my husband a part of her life and her son's life. She's part of our family, and we're part of hers."
Noting that her daughter-in-law has received support from the Gold Star Wives, Lorick said she hadn't heard of the organization until her daughter-in-law's father, who was a military careerist, gave her a Gold Star flag to hang in her window.
"Each situation is unique for these widows, but, yet, they all have experienced the same thing too," noted Lorick, a retired high school math teacher.
"The biggest fear of the mother who has lost someone in the service is that that person will be forgotten," she said. "This reminds me that that's not going to happen. He will be remembered, and he's appreciated for the sacrifice he made. He believed very much in what he was doing and knew the importance of what he was doing.
"My other son is career military, too," Lorick continued. "I'm the mother of a serviceperson who lost his life and also the mother of a person still in the military." Her son, Army Maj. Matt McCollum, 32, is an instructor at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., and a tanker by training.
McCollum said camaraderie among the women is the biggest part about Gold Star Wives. "For me," she said, "the No. 1 help in being a survivor is being able to connect with other women who have gone through, are going through, the same thing I'm going through." She said because the military is such a transient community, a lot of women aren't residents of the state where they were living at the time of their husband's death. "So they don't have a pre-established line of communications with the state or the county or the city they live in," noted McCollum, who joined the Gold Star Wives in December 2004. "I moved from California to Florida, and the county I moved to forgives property tax in the house you live in. But the county next to me doesn't do that. So you have to be your own advocate.
"It was great for all of us to get together, first of all, to put faces with names," she said. "We've talked with each other for a couple of months now, and now we're able to see each other in the flesh and communicate back and forth." McCollum called the get-together "decompression" before going to the Women's Memorial to see "Faces of the Fallen." "We can kind of share a tear or two before we walk into what we're getting ready to walk into," she said. "When my husband died, I needed somebody to take care of me, and my mother-in-law needed somebody to take care of in the unfortunate circumstances we'd both been put in," McCollum noted. "At the very least we have each other.