SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
During the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the women seeking help from the American Widow Project were young, and their husbands had been killed in combat. Today, the widows who contact the organization are older and, as Gloria Hillard reports, their husbands die on American soil.
GLORIA HILLARD, BYLINE: In the kitchen of this vacation rental in Southern California, there are family pictures on the refrigerator.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: You have to make an incision somewhere.
HILLARD: On closer inspection, they are of the women around the kitchen table - wedding photos and pictures of children. A typical makeshift family scrapbook at an American Widow Project retreat.
ERIN MURZYN: I have to say I haven't genuinely laughed as much as I've laughed with these ladies and shared things that I know that they understand.
HILLARD: Erin Murzyn says on the first day of the retreat she was nervous. At the age of 43, she wondered if she would be the oldest widow.
MURZYN: A lot of widows - military widows - are young. Am I going to be the suicide widow? Like, is everybody else going to be KIA?
HILLARD: Killed in action - and she wasn't the oldest or the only suicide widow. Group facilitator Erin Dructor says she started noticing the trend a couple of years ago when the majority of women contacting the nonprofit reported that they had lost their husbands to suicide or terminal illness.
ERIN DRUCTOR: Each event, it's about 70 percent are non-combat.
HILLARD: Dructor got involved with the American Widow Project a decade ago after her husband, Army Sergeant Blake Stephens, was killed in Iraq. Back then, she says, the women's stories often began the same way. There were two uniformed men in the driveway, on the porch.
DRUCTOR: Now it's almost like the widows are finding their husbands or family members are finding their husbands.
MURZYN: So it was my brother who told me.
HILLARD: Erin Murzyn's husband, retired Marine Master Sergeant Russell Murzyn, committed suicide at the age of 44.
MURZYN: He did leave a letter. And he put in the letter that his head hurt so bad, and he didn't feel he could be fixed.
HILLARD: Russell who had served two tours in Iraq was being treated by the VA when he died. His widow says she didn't realize how bad things had become - that he was a wonderful new father and kept his feelings inside to protect those he loved.
MURZYN: Russell was that Marine that other Marines looked up to, and he was the guy that they went to with problems.
HILLARD: Like Murzyn, 47-year-old Jenny Much is attending her first American Widow Project retreat.
JENNY MUCH: I was pretty tore up one night, and I - just crying, sobbing or whatever. I went online and started searching for military widow communities.
HILLARD: Her husband, Navy commander Jason Much, died of brain cancer in July of last year. He was 44. When he was diagnosed, she asked him...
MUCH: Sweetie, what do you want to do? If you have a year, what do you want to do? You want to travel the world? Like, he's - really? I've been all over the world. He's like, I want to stay home and watch football.
HILLARD: For more than two decades, Jenny Much was a Navy wife. Two months after her husband died, she moved out of her house, bought an RV and drove across country visiting friends in the military community, but soon she realized she was not a part of the active duty world any more. Now the women of the American Widow Project are her adopted military family.
MUCH: The inspiration to get hearing their stories - and they can talk about their, you know, late husbands and laugh and tell stories and cry. And that's helping me. I have hope. That's the word. I have hope.
HILLARD: That's what Jenny Much is taking with her from this retreat. After a few months in the RV, she's now thinking maybe it's time to put down roots and start looking for a new home. For NPR News, I'm Gloria Hillard.
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