This is the tale of the General, the Gold Star Wife and the Girlfriend of a soldier.
The first time I spoke to a Gold Star Wife, I was extremely nervous. This lady and I had emailed back and forth several times before agreeing to talk. I had actually rehearsed my opening line a million times. I was worried I would say something stupid or insensitive. Once we got on the phone (my heart racing) I knew what I had to do. I had to can the script and tell the truth.
I'm not very good at this. I'm so sorry for your loss and I just don't really know what to say.
She thanked me for that, then went on to explain that she realizes it's hard for others for exactly the same reason – they're afraid they're going to say the wrong thing. Later, I was able to meet this fantastic lady in person. So did over 300 spouses who attended SpouseBUZZ LIVE in San Diego. On the panel, Shelly discussed this very issue – how best to approach, communicate with and support the spouses of fallen heroes (she's not crazy about the term "widow"). It was a hard conversation. The tears were flowing.
You may have heard about the error that occurred when families of our fallen soldiers received "Dear John Doe" letters from the Army. The letter offered names of organizations who were there to assist the families. Yesterday afternoon, some bloggers had the opportunity to question Brig. Gen. Reuben Jones about the incident. I sat in on the call because I was interested in how the families were reacting to the situation.
I don't know BG Jones, but I could hear the agony in his voice as he repeatedly talked about this "horrible, horrible" error. I don't doubt his sincerity, either. Soldiers care about each other, and they care about each others family. When I was making my rounds at Walter Reed, soldiers would email and ask that I check on so-and-so while I was there. It was important to them.
Today, BG Jones stressed the Army's commitment to families. He mentioned that surviving spouses can remain a part of the larger Army family as long as they wish. Nah, the Army doesn't always do everything right. And when we speak of "the Army," we're really speaking of the men and women who make up the institution. Those men and women, as evidenced above, care deeply about one another. I never intended today's conversation with BG Jones to take me off the subject of the letter and in a different direction, but, as you will see, it has.
Back to our Gold Star Wife. Shelly said something very interesting when we spoke with her on SBTR. After her husband's death, she and her five children moved back home. Home wasn't anywhere near a military installation. She longed to be around her Army family again because her civilian friends and neighbors just "didn't get it." Shelly packed up her kids, headed for Ft. Benning and has been there for years now. She can't live on post, of course, but instead, she lives just outside the gate. Shelly claimed that when she and her children get to drive through the gates, "they breathe a different air." Shelly now mentors grieving families who have lost their loved ones in the line of duty. Oh, I've imagined how it might be, but I seriously doubt I'd be as strong as Shelly should I find myself in this situation, and I'm not convinced I would want to live in a military community, but Shelly would surely be my role model. Almost everything that could go wrong with the notification process (due to odd circumstances) went wrong in Shelly's case. She could be bitter, but no, she loved her Army family and she chose to stay connected to it by turning her tragedy into a way to help others.
BG Jones unknowingly reminded me of something I vowed to do, but haven't done. On the show with Shelly was Melissa. Melissa isn't a Gold Star Wife. Her boyfriend was killed before they married. Doesn't matter that they weren't married – she loved and lost a soldier. I remember Melissa saying that when Jim's unit returned from Iraq, she went to welcome them home and Jim's buddies greeted and comforted her. Reminded me of yet another moving story. BG Jones was right, the Army is a big family and we must look out for each other. Only I haven't really looked out for Melissa – albeit from a far, and in a bloggy sort of way – in a long, long while. It looks as if she's doing well. I didn't know Jim and I don't know Melissa, but my guess is that Jim would be happy to know that Melissa has not been forgotten. And my guess is that Melissa would be happy to know we haven't forgotten Jim, either.
I asked BG Jones what the reaction of the families has been to both the "Dear John Doe" letter and the apology. He said it ran the gamut. Someone made a huge error. Our Gold Star families deserve respect. Deep respect. General Jones reminded me that it's not only our responsibility and duty to do what we can for those who no longer have a loved one to squeeze on cold nights, but it's a duty that most of us want to perform to the best of our ability, even when it's awkward or hard.
Yes, extreme care should always be taken when corresponding with the families of those who gave all. Always. I feel for the families who received the letter, but I also know that it wasn't malicious. We can be outraged and we can form judgments. I think everyone cringed when they first heard of this story, I know I did. I can see myself thinking, "My husband gave his life for this country and they couldn't bother to put a name on a blankety-blank letter." But ultimately it matters most what these families feel and how they choose to respond. But I will say this, righting a wrong is often a very hard thing to do. All indications are that the Army moved swiftly to right this wrong, and I expect we'll never see a repeat of something like this.
So, if you haven't figured it out by now, the title of this post was a head-fake. This isn't really the tale of the General, the Gold Star Wife and the Girlfriend (the three G's). It's the tale of the tangled web we must weave. Tangles are very bad on the hair, but often very useful in life.
Update: BG Jones apologizes on YouTube: