Brought together by grief

Times Staff Writer

When a married soldier dies, the military removes his wedding band to send to his widow.

Taryn Davis of San Marcos, Texas, learned this just after her husband, Army Cpl. Michael W. Davis, was killed last year by a roadside bomb in Iraq. His widow, 22, rushed to contact the casualty assistance officer assigned to help her, begging him to make sure the ring never came off his finger. He promised her he’d keep it on.

When a married soldier dies, his belongings are shipped home in black boxes. Every piece of clothing is washed and folded, every movie and CD put in a white case, every picture stacked in a plastic bag. Beth Tomczak, 23, of Fort Bragg, N.C., didn’t know the Army would do this until she got the boxes holding the belongings of her husband, Staff Sgt. Zachary B. Tomczak. She had hoped to get his things as he had left them.


There is no official list of U.S. war widows, but there are thousands -- nearly half of the 4,155 soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan were married. Most of the dead were young, as are the women they left behind.

Over the weekend, Tomczak, Davis and a few other military widows, all in their 20s, gathered in a rented beach house in Santa Monica.

The women, who found one another on the Internet and come from cities across the country, talk nearly every day. They share their experiences, including planning funerals, figuring out what to do with their husbands’ things, and dealing with relatives who don’t know what it is to be 20 and a widow.

Davis -- who founded the group now called the American Widow Project -- Tomczak and Nicole Hart of Burbank, whose husband, David, was killed in Iraq this year, are featured in an online documentary called “We Regret to Inform You.” It premieres tonight in Culver City.

Later this month, the women will take their stories across the country. In a rented RV, they will travel to military bases, trying to find other young widows, hoping to spare them a bit of the overwhelming loneliness, isolation and helplessness that they felt in the weeks and months after their husbands died.

Davis, after hearing that her husband had died, spent weeks on the couch in the home she had shared with him. She refused to eat, refused to get up.

“Everybody went back to their day-to-day life, and I found myself not getting better,” she said. “I knew there were others like me. I wanted to know their stories. I wanted to know how they met their husbands; I wanted to know what gets them up every day.”

She spent hours on the Internet, looking for resources and coming up short. There are several war widows organizations, but most are advocacy groups whose base of support is older widows and which offer little immediate consolation, she said.

So she created a group on her own.

“We’re all at an age where we’re just figuring out our lives, expecting our husbands to come back, so we can go back to college, get a degree and go on with our lives,” she said. “Instead we’re all in our 20s and having to build our whole life back again.”

Several months after Michael’s death, Davis picked up a camera and headed to the homes of other widows, asking them to share their stories for a documentary that she would give to women whose husbands died serving their country.

Her first interview was with the wife of the soldier who had sat behind Michael when both were killed.

“She was so in love with her husband,” and the video gave her the chance to talk about him, Davis said.

“I realized that there’s no right or wrong way to grieve,” Davis said. “There’s no steps or stages.”

If one thing is clear about the American Widow Project, it is that its women are still deeply in love with their husbands.

Davis, whose work was documented in “We Regret to Inform You,” keeps Michael’s clothing in his room, the way he left it. She has a scent drawer, where she keeps things that still smell like him.

Tomczak has husband Zachary’s favorite television shows -- “Heroes,” “Smallville,” episodes of “Grey’s Anatomy” that she’d persuaded him to watch -- saved on the DVR.

Their focus was not so much on moving on with their lives as on finding ways to stay close to their late husbands.

On Saturday morning, six women from the project gathered at Manhattan Beach, where they’d signed up for surfing lessons.

“These are the things we wanted to do with our husbands,” Tomczak said.

The morning haze still hadn’t lifted when they tugged on wetsuits in the parking lot, letting their tattoos show.

On Tomczak’s left foot are three forget-me-not flowers, one for each of the years she was married. On Davis’ back are lines written, she said, by poet Ralph Waldo Emerson after the death of his wife: “The eager fate which carried thee, Took the largest part of me, For this losing is true dying.”

Nicole Hart, who was 12 when she met her future husband at church and 19 when they married, has David’s military tag etched on her foot, its ink chain wrapped around her ankle.

Rebecca Huff, 26, who was three months pregnant when her husband died, has two angels inked on her right calf; one of the angels, a male, comforts the other, a female cradling a child.

While the other women surfed, Huff sat on the beach, just wanting to enjoy the water. Nearby, a woman watched a little boy digging a hole in the sand; a young couple played in the waves.

Huff had driven 12 hours on Friday from her home near the Oregon border to be with the other women. She had met her husband, Marine Cpl. Justin Huff, at a barbecue in March 2005, and they married that August. He died the next January in Virginia Beach, where he was a student at the Navy and Marine Corps Intelligence Training Center. He was murdered by another student.

Because of Huff’s unique story, other war widows don’t always connect with her. But Davis, who found her on MySpace, sent her a message, telling her about the project.

“She’d call me every day,” Huff said.

On Sunday, eight of the women gathered on the beach in Santa Monica, where every week a group of veterans sets out thousands of white and red crosses representing U.S. war dead.

The eight women walked in single file to the front line of crosses and sat down. With the group’s permission, they labeled crosses with strips of paper bearing their husbands’ names. They set out photographs and bunches of flowers.

A crowd formed. A young man explained to his father, in Spanish, the reason for the memorial. They watched the young women as, one by one, they lay down in front of a cross.

They rested their heads on their arms in the sand, and as the sun began to set, they whispered to each other.