'American Widow Project' Born From Grief

Taryn Davis was just 21 years old when her husband was killed in Iraq. As a young widow, she felt bereft and very alone. She channeled her grief into the American Widow Project. It began as a documentary and transformed into a national support group for other widows.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

On this Veterans Day we bring you a story about wives who've lost their husbands in war. Taryn Davis lost her husband in Iraq. She was bereft and, as an uncommonly young widow, felt very much alone. Gloria Hillard has this story on what she did to channel her grief.

GLORIA HILLARD: At Taryn Davis' home in Buda, Texas, there are a pair of combat boots near the front door, right where her husband, Corporal Michael Davis, always left them.

Ms. TARYN DAVIS (Founder and President, The American Widow Project): You know, when he'd come home, he'd leave his boots there. And so I leave them there. And actually, I have a pair in my bedroom, too. Because every day I wake up and I would think, you know, it was just a dream. He wasn't dead. But then you'd hear the people outside in your living room talking and bringing in flowers and...

HILLARD: But eventually the people and the flowers stopped coming. It was the spring of 2007. Taryn Davis was 21 years old and a military widow. She wondered where were the women her age, women whose husbands were killed in combat. One day she picked up a camera and went looking for them. The voices of six different widows, all young, became a poignant documentary called "The American Widow Project."

(Soundbite of documentary "The American Widow Project")

Unidentified Widow #1: I remember that I heard the dogs bark, and I looked out the window. And I saw a white van, and there were two soldiers in it. And I knew.

Unidentified Widow #2: I had never believed that the world could actually, like, spin before your eyes, and it did.

HILLARD: The film gave birth to the nonprofit organization of the same name. Today more than a hundred and fifty women post their stories and pictures on the group's Web page and chat with each other on a MySpace page offering support and inspiration.

Ms. NICOLE HART: And this is us on our last vacation with...

HILLARD: Twenty-three-year-old Nicole Hart of Burbank, California, lost her husband Sergeant David Hart earlier this year. She says without the women she's met from the American Widow Project, she doesn't know where she would be today.

Ms. HART: It's helped me in healing, knowing that I'm having a hard time waking up this morning, and I know without a doubt that another widow is too.

HILLARD: Hart met her husband when she was 12 years old. They were best friends even then, she says.

Ms. HART: And the next shadow box has his medals...

HILLARD: Framed pictures of the petite, dark-haired Nicole and her six-foot-three, red-headed husband share wall space with some of his cherished possessions. Everything he owned in Iraq was sent back in eight black boxes. That's what happens when your husband dies in war, Hart says. You receive his belongings in small black boxes: his favorite watch, the letter that he hadn't sent, his clothes.

Ms. HART: And what goes, if it's foremost in your head, are the clothes because you can't wait to smell him. You know that they're going to smell like him. And you open it, and it smells like Tide. Everything was washed. Everything sanitized. Everything was wiped down.

HILLARD: Besides the black boxes, you also get a large black binder. Taryn Davis remembers it was entitled "The Days Ahead."

Ms. DAVIS: Which has everything from the different caskets to choose from to the different urns to, you know, numbers to call.

HILLARD: But there's not much in there to deal with the emotions of the days, weeks, and months ahead. Davis hopes to change that.

Ms. DAVIS: Our overall goal is that one day that our DVD is in there. And when they're handed that binder, we know that they are going to have six widows in their house sharing their story.

HILLARD: Next month Taryn Davis and Nicole Hart will be packing up an RV and taking their message on the road. They plan on traveling to military bases and towns across the country to reach out to the hundreds of newly war widowed, listening to their stories and sharing their own. For NPR News, I'm Gloria Hillard.

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