The women of the American Widow Project, an online support network and nonprofit organization dedicated to unifying a new generation of widows, are far from traditional. They surf, skydive and now road-trip to honor their husbands, who died serving their country in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Despite their grief, group reaches out to other widows in their common sorrow.
Widows Taryn Davis and Nicole Hart, both 23, will spend most of the next few months driving cross-country, sleeping in campgrounds and knocking on doors. They are traveling to military towns, offering understanding and hope to an ever-growing band of sisters.
"I really believe if we can lessen the pain and lessen the grief that just one widow can go through, then we are accomplishing our mission," Davis told ABC News correspondent Bob Woodruff.
Davis and Hart are traveling in a black RV custom-painted with the names of more than 4,000 of the fallen from Iraq and Afghanistan, including their husbands, Cpl. Michael Davis of San Marcos, Texas, and Sgt. David Hart of Lake View Terrace, Calif.
"We really just hope to, if anything, not have them disappear," Davis said.
Stacey Markham was one of the first women to find her husband’s name, Sgt. Jonathan Markham, on the list. "It is amazing that everybody’s name is up there," she said. "Wherever this RV is at, people will be reminded, not just, ‘Oh, we lost another soldier today, but look at all these families that have suffered this loss."
Davis and Hart launched the road trip last month in San Marcos, Texas, where Davis met and fell in love with her husband. In a moving ceremony, surrounded by widows and veterans groups, San Marcos’ mayor Susan Narvaiz presented the widows with the key to the city.
More than 30 Patriot Guard Riders — a national organization of motorcycle riders who honor the sacrifice of the military and their families — stood with flags and wearing leather jackets as the widows spoke, ready to escort them on the first leg of their journey.
Putting the large RV in reverse, Davis said, "All righty. Let’s do this."
‘We Regret to Inform You’
It was nearly two years ago that two soldiers in Class-A uniforms approached Davis’ home with devastating news.
"One of them had his head down and the other one was shaking," Davis said. "And then the words that I think are burned into every widow’s and widower’s mind: ‘The secretary of defense regrets to inform you your husband, Michael Davis, was killed.’"
Many widows have shared their memories of those words with Davis.
"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," said Nina Carr, widow of Sgt. Robert M. Carr. "Like my heart dropped to the floor." Csilla Lyerly, widow of Capt. Sean Lyerly, said, "I just fell to the floor and I was just screaming, `No, no, no, no.’ And I paused, and I looked at them, like, `Ma’am we regret to inform you.’ `No, no, no, no,’ I am just screaming at the top of my lungs."
"I said, `now what do I do?’" recalled Jessica Ardron, widow of Sgt. Brian Ardron. "And, he said, `Well, we are going to have a casualty officer call you.’ And, I said, `No, what do I do with my life?’"
A Love Story
Michael and Taryn Davis were high school sweethearts and married right before Christmas in 2005, months before he deployed to Iraq. "I found my soul mate," Davis said.
PHOTO American Widow Project
Then, on May 21, 2007, she lost him. Taryn Davis was a widow, at 21.
Davis remembered her husband’s friend calling two days after his death and saying, "’He was really proud of you, Taryn.’ And when he said that … I think that’s when it hit me that he wasn’t coming home."
In the days and weeks after his death, Davis did not leave her home. "You just want to end your life at some points," she said.
Davis scoured the Internet and attended widows’ support groups that were filled with senior citizens; she felt even more alone. If she looked older, Davis remembers thinking, perhaps people would understand the depth of her grief and stop telling her she would move on.
"I look at those married for 50 years before they lost their husbands, and I say they had 50 years, where I have to live 50 years knowing I can’t have him here with me," she said.
Desperate to talk to other war widows who could understand, Davis set out to find them. She found six young widows and began documenting their stories of love and tragedy on film. That’s when she began to realize how much widows could help each other.
"I have cried with these women, and they have cried with me," Davis said. "I feel like it’s an honor that I am in the presence of someone whose husband is just as honorable as mine."
‘Finding A Way to Still Live’
Davis created "The American Widow Project" (AWP) in late 2007. Despite many women telling her they hate the word ‘widow,’ Davis chose it to reclaim the word and help replace the stigma with honor. "They’re like, ‘I’m not 80, I’m not with big-rimmed glasses with a shawl around my neck. I am full of life still,’" Davis explained.
With half a million visitors so far, the Web site is a thriving community where women share love stories and thoughts on surviving. There are notes about everything from what to do with a husband’s toothbrush to telling children the bad news.
"I went through the first year of my grief alone, miserable," Markham said. "I didn’t think I could make it another day and then I found the AWP on MySpace and everybody just helps each other, encourages each other. It just gives me hope, makes me get up another day."
Davis arranged American Widow Project retreats last year that featured zip-lining, river-tubing and surfing lessons. "I felt bad the first time that I laughed," Davis said. "Michael can’t laugh, I shouldn’t laugh. In the beginning, I hated to take even one step without Michael. I have taken a lot of steps now."
Davis is rewarded seeing widows begin to open up and laugh. "They were able to relax and really maybe do the first fun thing that they have really even done since their husband was killed," she said
Angelee Lombardi, widow of Staff Sgt. Keith Lombardi, said, "It’s about still finding a way to have fun. Even though our husbands are gone, you know, finding a way to still live."
On the web-site and in person, the widows of American Widow Project talk about the little things, the little things they miss and the little things they still have.
In her closet, Davis keeps the black box the military gave her with her husband’s personal effects inventoried, including 40 pairs of socks and 15 pictures. "What my husband’s life was over there has now been put down into little tiny plastic bags."
Davis described her disappointment when she discovered that the Army had sanitized most of her husband’s possessions. "But there are things like his pillow that they didn’t wash, and I have actually kept that in the box because I am afraid to open it and lose whatever scent might still be in there."
"The second year, people had told me, was harder," Deborah Petty, widow of Capt. Christopher Petty, told Davis in the documentary. "All of a sudden you come out of that fog and you start feeling all of it, and even though you may have had your first anniversary or you may have had the first birthdays, feeling it numb and feeling it 100 percent is so different. And it is very, very hard."
Military Stays Quiet on Widows
Davis hopes to be able to speak with military casualty officers and chaplains on her trip, to thank them for the honorable work they do and to create a dialogue to help future widows. She has reached out to 60 military bases since September but, so far, has received no response.
Officials at Fort Hood, the first road-trip destination, never replied to Davis’ request to meet with casualty officers or chaplains. In a statement to ABC News, public affairs officer Ben Danner said, "We cannot at this point give the impression, implicit or otherwise, that we endorse the American Widow Project (which seems, by all accounts, to be a fantastic initiative)."
One day, Davis hopes to convince the military to include her documentary in the black binder two service members carry to a new widow’s door. Davis hopes future widows could press play and feel like a group of women who truly understand are right there for them in their living rooms.
And maybe they won’t feel quite as alone as she did when she heard the words "we regret to inform you."