“On behalf of the Air Force and the United States of America we would like to extend our most heartfelt condolences.”
With that one sentence, life as I had known it the last 8 years had come crashing down into a pile of fiery rubbish. I was no longer a military spouse, but now a military widow trying to rebuild a life from the ashes surrounding mine and my children’s lives.
“The body of your husband, SSgt Matthew Peterson, was found earlier today with a self inflected gun shot wound to the head.”
I remember screaming, crying, and yelling at the Chaplin and my husband’s squadron Commander that he wouldn’t do that… not my husband… he loved us too much, loved his parents and his sisters… he wouldn’t do that! We didn’t even own a gun! Were they sure it was my husband? My Matt?
“Is there anyone we can call who can be here with you?”
All I knew is I wanted to be alone; however, they wouldn’t leave without someone being there with me, to watch me, to support me during this time. In the military, moving around as much as we do, our friends become our families as our biological ones are often hundreds of miles away. In my case, thousands of miles away in Alaska. I turned to the one person I knew I could get a hold of…. Miriam, who rushed home from a shopping trip in town to be with me. All I could think of is how this was a nightmare… this couldn’t be happening to me… to my children… oh my god… How was I going to break this to his parents, older sister and his TWIN sister?? Their only son and brother ripped from their lives at the young age of 30.
The rest of the day was a flurry of activity that I numbly nodded my way through - all cried out - as the Pennington County Sheriffs spoke with me, the Casualty Officers briefly went through all the things I would receive (life insurance - what a major relief), and a visit from the local suicide survivors group. Sleep would become a sparse commodity…only visiting after being induced by drugs prescribed to me by my PCM. Thanksgiving dinner planning would be substituted with memorial and funeral planning, only to be “celebrated” by visiting a friend’s house for a turkey dinner.
At the age of 29, I shouldn’t have to be preparing for my husband’s funeral….picking out his urn, the memory book, preparing an obituary for the local newspaper, having to view my husband’s body in the casket a day before his military honors funeral. Our children shouldn’t be exposed to death at their young ages, having to say goodbye to a dad they had only known for 8 short years, many of which were spent without him due to deployments. A week before Thanksgiving and I was picking up his ashes from the funeral home and bringing him home with me in a small wooden box.
Unlike other military widows, my husband wasn’t taken from our family by an act of war in a foreign country. He was ripped from us by a conscious decision made on his behalf. A part of a gruesome and frightening statistic that was, and still is, a growing concern amongst the military population - Suicide. Last year the numbers of active duty service members who committed suicide exceeded the amount of service members killed in action. At our base, my husband was one of eleven men who had committed suicide in that year.
This is our life as we know it now. A widowed 29 year old raising 2 kids without their father, muddling our way through as best we can without the husband and father we relied on more than he knew. We will continue to slowly climb our way out of this black hole that swallowed us… we may stumble and fall, often times more than we would like, but we will emerge one day as better people for the trials and tribulations that we faced all the while knowing that our rock is smiling down on us from Heaven and watching over us.