In the decade since the United States went to war in Iraq and Afghanistan, more than 6,200 members of the military have died in the service of their country, leaving behind an estimated 3,000 military widows. Widows like Taryn Davis, who in 2007 lost her husband, Marine Cpl. Michael Davis, to an improvised explosive device during his first tour in Iraq. She was 21 years old, and they had been married for 18 months.
“No 21-year-old knows how to bury her husband, and no one around her knows how to help,” says Ms. Davis.
Just four months after her husband’s death, Ms. Davis founded the American Widow Project, a charity in Austin, Tex., dedicated to helping military widows, chiefly by connecting them with one other. The group sponsors frequent retreats in which small groups of widows congregate to not only share their grief and their memories but also participate in life-embracing, boundary-expanding activities such as skydiving, sailing, and rock climbing.
“We are bringing these women together to build the same camaraderie their husbands had with fellow service members,” says Ms. Davis. “Not letting them live in their grief but challenging them emotionally and mentally, that they may see their capacity to live is far broader than they’d ever expected since their husbands’ deaths.”
The organization has sponsored 18 retreats, which are available free to any of the more than 1,000 military widows who have joined the group.
Ms. Davis supported the organization in its early days by using the money she received from her husband’s death benefits. This year the charity is operating on a budget of $160,000, with about 10 percent of the money coming from donated products and services and the rest from private contributions, says Ms. Davis. While most of the money comes from individuals, the American Widow Project has received grants from corporate and family foundations.
Scott Burchfield first heard about the charity from an ABC News profile and was so inspired by the group that he approached Ms. Davis with the idea of organizing annual golf-tournament fundraisers in partnership with his employer, Kangaroo Express.
“What sets AWP apart from other charities we’ve sponsored is how its benefits keep expanding,” he says, noting that the personal connections forged during the group’s retreats create a self-sustaining healing process as the widows continue to support each other.
Eli Melton, whose husband died a year ago, agrees. The group “helped me to give shape to my grieving and to understand that I’m not alone, that there are so many other women to pull from and to feel for that are in the same place,” says Ms. Melton. “Taryn and AWP gave me this whole network of amazing women, as well as a new way to grieve—and to live.”