Military Widows Use Adventure To Cope With Grief

Grief and extreme adventure typically don't go hand in hand. But for a group of military widows, the experiences came together recently at a retreat near Anchorage, Alaska, organized by the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors.

GUY RAZ, host: Adventure may not seem like the standard way to deal with grief. But a group of women who traveled to Alaska found an adrenaline rush can be an important part of healing. The women have all lost husbands serving in the military, most in Iraq and Afghanistan. The widows' retreat near Anchorage was organized by a national group known as TAPS, or Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors.

Alaska Public Radio's Annie Feidt dropped in on the action.

ANNIE FEIDT: Cheryl Dodson, who's from Fayetteville, North Carolina, has never rappelled down a cliff before.

CHERYL DODSON: Is this how this goes?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Yep.

DODSON: OK.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: And step through that leg loop.

FEIDT: In black rimmed glasses and a button down shirt, she doesn't look like your typical extreme athlete. And as she puts on her climbing harness and helmet, she is seriously considering chickening out.

DODSON: I'm really nervous about this.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

FEIDT: But she signed up for the morning's canyoneering adventure in Girdwood, near Anchorage. And that will mean backing down a 50-foot cliff on safety ropes into a rock-walled canyon. By the time she's suited up, she sounds determined to go through with it.

DODSON: I was in the van thinking, oh, I'm totally not doing this. This is silly. I'm not doing this. But I'm going to do it, and my husband would be really proud of me, because he did stuff like this all of the time. He was a nut.

FEIDT: Her husband, Captain Michael Dodson, was killed in an aviation accident in Guam in 2008. TAPS is a nonprofit organization that serves as a resource for grieving loved ones of those who die in the military. Each year, they hold retreats and a grief camp for kids.

Nicki Bunting's husband was killed in 2009 by an IED in Afghanistan. Just a few days later, she found out she was pregnant. Bunting has been to several TAPS gatherings, but this is her first widows retreat.

NICKI BUNTING: You know when I'm out with my friends or whatever, I always feel like I don't fit in. I always look around, and I get jealous. So I feel like I just kind of have a piece of normalcy back. I don't feel like an outsider.

FEIDT: And Bunting seems to be in her element here. When the guide asks who wants to go first, she quickly volunteers. She clips into the rope, takes a deep breath and slowly backs up over the cliff.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: You're doing good. Hey, smile this way. Yeah. That's kind of a smile. And now look for that edge. And now Indiana Jones. All right, who's up?

FEIDT: Jessica Byrd passed up the morning's tamer activities for the canyoneering trip. Her husband died in Iraq in 2004 when a suicide bomber drove into his SUV. Like Bunting, she was pregnant when her husband died. And she's learned there's something powerful about sharing an adventure with women who've been through the same thing.

JESSICA BYRD: You know, laughed and cried and, you know, got your butt kicked, and you're muddy and everything. And, you know, at the end of the day when it does come time to sit down for dinner or during those nights, which a lot of us call widow hours when we can't sleep and everything, we have these people that we've shared a bond with that we can call.

FEIDT: At the bottom of the cliff, the women who've already rappelled cheer on their friends. Emily Alley says making it down safely is the highlight of the retreat for her. Her husband, John, died three years ago in an accident during military training in Florida. She was also pregnant at the time. Alley says she knew she would love the retreat.

EMILY ALLEY: And coming right off the plane, we immediately, oh, hi, clicked. Let's go get something to eat. We're friends instantly because, you know, you've gone through something most people haven't gone through, and it's a bond you like wouldn't believe.

FEIDT: Alley says when she's home in Utah, she can't dwell on the loss of her husband. But here, the emotions come to the surface, and it's a welcome release. Alley looks up and it's Cheryl Dodson's turn on the ropes. The woman who almost chickened out at the beginning of the day is now bouncing down the cliff as if she does this kind of thing all of the time.

ALLEY: Look at you, girl.

DODSON: Yay.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Heck, yeah.

FEIDT: She's still shaking a bit when I ask her to describe the experience.

DODSON: That was so awesome. I can't believe I did it. Yay. It was exhilarating. It was awesome. I want to do a bigger one now.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

ALLEY: Yeah.

FEIDT: The women already share the grief of losing their husbands. And now they have a very different reason to bond - the thrill of conquering their fears and rappelling down a cliff in Alaska.

For NPR News, I'm Annie Feidt, in Anchorage.

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