Joann Yost still feels the stares of the other military wives five years after her husband was killed in Iraq: It happens at ceremonies honoring fallen soldiers or when she's grocery shopping with her son.
It is unsettling, but Yost understands. In this North Carolina community a half-hour from Fort Bragg, where homes are draped with American flags and where it's not uncommon to see men in buzz cuts, the 44-year-old Yost is a reminder of everything that can go wrong in war, how lives can change overnight.
"These women look at me and know how close it could have been their husband," said Yost, mother of a 6-year-old boy.
It is hard to be a young military widow. Yost and others say they feel out of place in both civilian life and in their military communities. They have lost their husbands, but also their very identities, and their connections to towns that once provided a critical support system.
Increasingly, they are turning to social networks and organizations for help in adjusting to their new lives.
To be sure, it is difficult for anyone who has lost a spouse to move on with life. But military wives feel an even greater weight, said Michelle Hernandez, founder of the Soaring Spirits Loss Foundation, a national support network for the bereaved.
Hernandez said the pain is compounded because military wives immerse themselves in a different world. They learn the acronyms sprinkled in soldierspeak, attend a calendar filled with military-hosted social events and adopt the schedule of long leaves and weekends between deployments.
They also share a similar world view: They are sacrificing their family life and lives defending freedom.
As a result, their struggle to move on is also harder. They often feel that if they start to date again, they are betraying not just the memory of their deceased husbands but also that of fallen national heroes.
"That separates them a little bit from civilian widows," said Hernandez, whose organization this August will hold Camp Widow, a national conference in San Diego, which will include talks for military widows. "They have paid the price for the greater common good. They point to a purpose that they were widowed. My husband was hit by a car so it's a totally different type of experience."
Many surviving spouses try to continue living near bases to maintain a connection to their previous life. Some send care packages to their husbands' units — even if they did not know many of the new troops. They go to military-sponsored balls.
But many find themselves trapped in a state of restless uncertainty. They don't feel as comfortable as before in military life, but they don't want to totally leave it, either.
Joann Yost sometimes feels as if she is wearing a giant "W" on her chest.
"It's not OK for us to laugh. It's not OK for us to smile. They don't understand how we're doing it. I find myself consoling people," she said.
Yost sees military wives counting the number of drinks she orders at a bar or whispering when she speaks to another man. In some ways, she understands. She remembers doing the same to another military widow before her own husband died.
Master Sgt. Tony Yost was killed in 2005 after an explosion went off in a building where he was searching for insurgents in the northern Iraqi town of Mosul. He was 39.
Three weeks after her husband's death, Yost buried him in Arlington National Cemetery. The coffin was closed and she never saw his body.
At night, when the house was quiet, she cried.
"They say time heals all wounds, but for a widow I don't think it does. We can get through the first year in deployment mode," Yost said. "But the longer away it gets, the more I know he isn't coming back."
Now, she is acutely aware of the peculiar status of widows in the community.
"If we sit at home and don't do anything, we get the calls. `She is crazy. She is a hermit.' If we go out, we get the comments," Yost said. "Where do we fit in?"
A widowed friend of Yost's is moving away from Fort Bragg because she is tired of the scrutiny.
"Some of us feel like we have to get away to become ourselves again. You're under the spotlight constantly. They see you as so-and-so's widow," Yost said. "She can't take it anymore, so she is moving away."
Christine Petriken said even living away from Bragg did not help.
She arrived in the United States seven years ago with two suitcases and her 8-year-old daughter, Rhiannon, after her husband was killed in a Humvee accident near As Samawah, Iraq.
They had been living at the U.S. Army base in Germany. She moved to North Carolina to be near family and now lives near Jacksonville, hours from Fort Bragg. But she still feels judged by other military wives at the nearby Marine Corps base.
"I feel like I always have to explain myself," she said. "We're the orphans of military society. There is no widow's manual."
There are more than 54,000 survivors of spouses who served in conflicts from World War II to Afghanistan. Fort Bragg has almost 2,000 surviving spouses, parents and children in its database and formed a group to help widows find a community where they feel comfortable.
Fort Bragg Survivor Outreach Services is "a place for them to come to get accurate information, be themselves, and to have a place that is just for them," said Charlotte Watson, program manager.
"The soldier was immersed in the military community," Watson said. "This was their career, their way of life, and so the families may always feel a connection with the military."
Rachelle Vaughn says she feels like one of the lucky ones. It's been two years since soldiers came to her door with the news that dropped her to her knees, screaming: A sniper had killed her 22-year-old husband Richard in Iraq.
When her husband died, she was only 11 days pregnant. Their marriage was less than a month old and their entire relationship had only lasted 15 months. Vaughn moved back immediately to their hometown of San Diego.
"It was such a weird feeling losing your husband and knowing that your friends' husbands were still out there," the 24-year-old said. "I was so afraid to tell the rest of the wives. I didn't want to."
Instead of being shunned, she was embraced. The few military wives she had come to know at Fort Hood, where her husband was stationed, flew to San Diego to be with her. They helped make her food and consoled her.
Then she was contacted on MySpace by a young widow who wanted to let her know she was not alone. Soon after she received a DVD of the testimonies of other young widows like herself through the American Widow Project, an organization started by Taryn Davis after her husband was killed by roadside bombs in Iraq in 2007.
The organization collects the stories of young military widows and offers a hot line so they can talk to other widows. They also organize events, like skydiving, to help the women enjoy life again.
"It was amazing to know somebody else was out there dealing with this, sharing the same emotions," Vaughn said.
Vaughn said friends who are military widows "have told me they were shunned, that people treat it like a disease, like they'll catch it too," she said. "Thankfully I didn't get that."
For Vaughn, staying connected to her husband's unit feeds her soul.
She sends care packages of candy, lip balm and magazines to Richard's unit and receives news from the new commanding officer each time the troops are deployed. Next month, she is flying to Colorado to attend an Army pre-deployment ball "to hang out with some of the kids."
"There's something about being a military wife that makes it different, and it makes you want to do something to honor the military because now he's a part of history," she said.
Vaughn has a cabinet filled with pictures and memorabilia of her husband's Army career. She had a photographer Photoshop her husband's image in her son's portraits. She has saved his razor, cell phone, gun holder and military ID. She still buys things at the Army store, like an Army bib for their son, Richard, who is now 18 months old.
Jay Boulter, a grief counselor who has worked with the military, said it is common for a widow to remain in the house she shared with her husband, keep her husband's old car or uniforms at hand, or keep in contact with her husband's unit.
"Just as in the old days when there would be a loss of a family member, the community would come around," he said. "You stay there because you are getting what you need."
For years, Joann Yost kept Tony's uniforms in the closet and her office was a tribute to her fallen husband. Pictures clogged the shelf, and a framed portrait of him cradling a sniper rifle in Iraq looked down on her as she worked on the computer.
But over time, the room became too much.
If he were alive, Tony probably wouldn't recognize their house today. Gone is his old recliner. All the furniture is new and every room has a woman's sensibility.
"I made it that way because I want to do what I want. I can be me," she said.
Watson reported from San Diego.
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