Washington Army widows take care of their own

TACOMA — Reeling from the death of her husband in Iraq, Stephanie Groepper received a 5-inch-thick manual from an Army officer detailing hundreds of programs she could call for help in her grief.

Over the next seven years, she kept having questions the manual couldn’t answer.

Like, what do you do if the Army can’t find all the belongings your husband took to Iraq?

Or, how do you raise a daughter to know a father who was killed in combat before she could crawl?

Groepper, 27, doesn’t have all the answers, but she knows where to start. The Puyallup resident is the founder of a new nonprofit organization called Washington Warrior Widows. It aims to walk the surviving loved ones of late military service members through a sometimes bewildering bureaucracy during times of mourning when few survivors can think clearly.

It’s crucial work, she says, as the nation’s attention turns away from the long wars that claimed the lives of almost 7,000 U.S. military service members in Iraq and Afghanistan, including Cpl. Chad Groepper and 315 others from Joint Base Lewis-McChord.

“Everyone thinks we are very well supported, but we’re not,” she said. “That may have been the case. Now it’s like everyone’s forgotten.”

She remembers.

Her daughter sleeps under a montage of photos of her fallen father, hoping he’ll visit her in her dreams. Groepper keeps the flag she received at his funeral on the mantle above her fireplace.

She fell for the JBLM soldier on a blind date eight years ago. They quickly became inseparable and married that spring.

An ambush in Iraq’s Diyala province killed Chad Groepper and another soldier from his JBLM Stryker brigade barely two years after his first date with his wife. Their daughter, Clarissa, was 4 months old when he died.

All of a sudden, Stephanie Groepper had a funeral to plan and a daughter to raise. She tried college, too, just to prove to herself that her loss would not define her.

The real grieving started a year later.

“It finally hit me that he wasn’t coming home,” she said.

Groepper wants Washington Warrior Widows to become a place where spouses of deceased military service members can support each other as they move forward in their lives. It’s rare to find someone outside a military community who can relate to their experiences, the widows say.

They’ve confronted agonizing decisions, such as how to get along with in-laws after a tragedy or how to balance their checkbooks if they give up military benefits by remarrying.

“We are survivors,” said Groepper, who grew up partly in Kent and has family in the South Sound. “I was in a place in my early 20s doing things that no 20-year-old should have to do.”

The group welcomes surviving spouses of military service members who die in combat, in accidents, from illness or by their own hands.

Its members host gatherings for each other and their kids. They reach out to new widows who might need to talk, too.

“We’re all doing it in different ways, and no one way is right,” said Danielle Villanueva, 31, of Gig Harbor, whose husband, explosive ordnance technician Staff Sgt. Mark Wells, was killed by a bomb in Afghanistan in 2011. She later married another soldier in the same dangerous line of work.

“We just are; we’re still alive,” she said.

Common backgrounds, different experiences

“Who would want a sad animal?” asks Caitlin Calvin, 27, of Yelm, one of Groepper’s close friends and a fellow founding member of Washington Warrior Widows.

The four widows around her laugh at an early March lunch in Lakewood. They are imagining what kind of stuffed toy they could put into grief boxes for children. They’re modeling the boxes after ones the Army provides, but not in enough numbers to comfort all the children of widows and widowers that Groepper’s group meets.

Amber Martini, who lost her husband to an accident in Iraq five years ago, is the crafty one in the group. She wants to stitch together puppets for the kids.

But what kind? Elephants? Rabbits? Mice?

They hold off on a decision.

The women at the table share a common background in that they lost their military spouses at young ages. But they had markedly different interactions with the Army just after the deaths of their husbands in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The casualty assistance officer who was responsible for helping Calvin instead made a pass at her. She said he also made a casually cruel remark about the location she chose for her husband’s grave, saying the site wouldn’t matter. The officer’s behavior heightened tensions on the way to her husband’s funeral.

Groepper had one casualty assistance officer who seemed disinterested with his assignment; a second tried to pick her up. The negative encounters prevented her from reconnecting with military support for several years.

Both women lost their husbands in early 2008, when casualties were just beginning to decline from the height of the Iraq War. Neither remembers being offered an opportunity to meet her spouse’s remains at Dover Air Force Base, a courtesy now commonly offered to family members of fallen troops.

As the months wore on, Groepper had to fight to get her husband’s belongings after they were misplaced in Iraq. She was only partly successful.

By 2010, when Martini lost husband Sgt. Ralph Mena in Iraq, the Army had mostly ironed out the mistakes that exacerbated Calvin and Groepper’s grief. Martini says she had a reliable casualty assistance officer, an offer to meet her husband’s remains at Dover, and steady support at home.

Like Villanueva, Martini is back in an Army family, too. She’s married to a military police officer at JBLM. She’s been planning Northwest getaways for the widows, their spouses and their kids.

“With the Washington Warrior Widows, you have friends that understand what you’ve gone through,” she said. “They understand what you go through on a daily basis, even four, five years later.”

‘Thank you for your sacrifice’

On a rainy Saturday in February, Groepper forgets that her T-shirt tells her story.

It reads “Washington Warrior Widows” on the front. The back shows a tribute to her husband.

It gets the attention of a Navy veteran. He cranes his neck to read the shirt before approaching Groepper at a busy roller skating rink in Federal Way.

“I just want to say thank you for your sacrifice,” he tells her.

She blushes. “I still don’t know what to say,” she says later.

Groepper appreciates the good will but struggles to find the right words to describe her fallen husband to strangers. She’s often balancing competing urges to guard her privacy while wishing more people would pay respects to the wars’ casualties.

“It’s like we’re left in the shadows,” she says.

That afternoon, Calvin and another Army widow join her at the skating rink with their children. Clarissa Groepper tests the roller blades she got for Christmas and mostly manages to stay on her feet.

The group first came together last year when Groepper met Calvin at a Tacoma event for military widows. They made a connection when they realized they were the only participants under age 30.

Together, they shared nonjudgmental conversations about things such as dating and motherhood.

“When you look at your whole life, after almost 30 years, two years define it. One event,” said Calvin, whose husband Spc. Brandon Meyer was killed in Iraq in January 2008.

She had a falling out with her in-laws soon after her husband’s death.

Calvin later found comfort in an Army pilot who respected her first love but wanted to start a family with her. He’s based at JBLM.

But her life milestones still make her think of her first husband, knowing he never had a chance to enjoy them.

“I turned 21. He didn’t get to turn 21,” Calvin said. “That guilt of being alive when they’re gone, that doesn’t go away.”

‘You don’t get over it’

Groepper these days is putting in full-time hours building up Washington Warrior Widows. She looks for businesses that want to sponsor the group. She also counsels surviving spouses when they run into obstacles with the military or the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Lately, one military widow has had trouble unlocking a VA stipend after the death of her husband in a car accident last year.

“She still needs money to live,” Groepper says.

Another veteran’s widow in Kitsap County has had trouble finding a standard display case for the American flag she was handed at her husband’s funeral almost a year ago.

“They’re extremely expensive,” Groepper says, eager to find someone who’ll help the widow.

Usually, military widows and widowers can get help with those problems through official military channels. The Army built up those services in 2009 to connect so-called “Gold Star” families with local military and VA resources.

The Survivor Outreach Services at JBLM, for example, offers long-term support in financial planning, counseling and social services. It maintains contact with some 850 military family members, 600 of whom lost loved ones to combat.

“We’re here as long as they want us,” said Ryki Carlson, a financial counselor at Survivor Outreach Services.

Those Army programs provide a core of services for widows in need of help on a military installation. What Groepper and her partners want is a place for survivors to connect outside the gates.

After mixed results with the manuals they were given by the Army, the Washington Warrior Widows are now writing their own manuals. They hope to show surviving spouses which programs are the best fit based on different circumstances, such as a combat death or an accidental death.

Groepper is also back in school, working toward a career in counseling.

Last month, on the seventh anniversary of Chad Groepper’s death, Stephanie and Clarissa Groepper visited a memorial monument for his unit at JBLM. Clarissa left a few donuts there after her mom told her that her daddy loved them.

Groepper mostly wants to tell the widows and widowers she meets that they should feel comfortable mourning in any way that feels right.

Friends and family “think you should be fine, that you should get over it,” she said.

“You don’t get over it. You get through it.”

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