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The Defense Department says there are over 3,200 widows and widowers who lost their spouses in Iraq and Afghanistan. The American Widow Project is a support group for women whose husbands were killed in those wars. At least once a month, a small group gathers for a long weekend of bonding and adventure. Gloria Hillard brings us their story from Southern California.
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GLORIA HILLARD, BYLINE: In the kitchen of a rental house near a beach in San Diego, a group of moms is preparing dinner.
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HILLARD: The 13 young women who have come here from around the country have one thing in common.
DANIELLE SCHAFER: July 25th, 2005, two men came to my door. And they said, are you Mrs. Schafer?
HILLARD: For 34-year-old Danielle Schafer, much of that day remains hazy. She remembers a chaplain taking her 3-year-old son into another room. And she was certain the men at the door had made a mistake.
SCHAFER: Because I had just talked to him that night.
HILLARD: Her husband, Army Staff Sergeant Michael Schafer, was stationed in Afghanistan. He would often call her before he left on a mission. But there was something different this time. She told him to call or message when he got back and to stay safe.
SCHAFER: And I never told him to stay safe. And so the fact that I did, like, I felt for so long, like, if I wouldn't have just said that, that it wouldn't have happened.
ERIN DRUCTOR: And I - for some reason, I didn't answer the phone. And he left me a voicemail.
HILLARD: In 2007, Erin Dructor's husband, Army Sergeant Blake Stephens, was in Iraq.
SCHAFER: And I still have that voicemail. And it still - I listen to it. Seven and a half years later, I can't erase it. Just because that war is over, it doesn't mean that ours is over. Like, our journey is still continuing.
HILLARD: The American Widow Project, the women say, is all about that journey.
JESSICA ROZIER: There is a part of you, when you're a young widow, that nobody gets except for them.
HILLARD: Jessica Rozier was 22 with an infant son. They were living in a small town in Texas when her husband, Army Lieutenant Jonathan Rozier, was killed in Iraq in July, 2003.
ROZIER: I'm sitting here, and I've got tears in my eyes. So obviously there's some stuff that still hurts. And I'm 11 years out.
HILLARD: She says there are certain things only a woman who has lost a husband to war knows about. And she and the other widows have grown weary of hearing how much time has passed and how they should just get over it.
ROZIER: I was telling the girls about this last night. We didn't get the clothes he was wearing back, obviously because they were bloody. But they - and they told me that they burned everything. Well, one day I got a box in the mail.
HILLARD: It was six months after her husband died. Inside that box was a pair of boots.
ROZIER: I pulled them out, and I'm so excited because they sent me his boots back. And this is so weird, but I, like, buried my face in them. And I'm like, oh - I can smell him. Then I was like, these are awfully small. Well, turns out that those boots belonged to another soldier who had passed away.
HILLARD: The American Widow Project welcomes about five new members a week - surviving spouses of those who died on the battlefield and at home from suicide. Today, there are more than 1,600 members - half the number of spouses killed in the wars. The American Widow Project's mission is to help heal and empower participants. Jessica Rozier got her college degree and has a new job. Her son, Justin, is now 11 years old and attended this weekend with his mother.
ROZIER: I haven't been kayaking before. I'm terrified of the ocean. I've never been on a sailboat. I may never get in the ocean ever again. But he was there with me the one time I did.
HILLARD: On their last night together, the moms and kids wrote on seashells words they had not had a chance to share with their husbands, their fathers.
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HILLARD: At sunset, they return the shells to the sea. For NPR News, I'm Gloria Hillard.
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