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Witness Testimony of Milly Briseno, Colorado Springs, CO (Iraq War Widow), Co-Founder, Colorado Military Survivors

At the height of my husband’s 17-year Army career and in the 13th year of our marriage, our life came to a screeching halt.  An unexpected massive stroke, at the age of 35, took his vibrant life from this temporary home and  left my three children and I reeling as we struggled for direction and purpose in this completely unfamiliar world of loss.  My husband’s untimely death came just one month after moving to Fort Carson.  As a young family, full of promise and a bright future, we did not think to discuss burial plans.  I struggled to know how to honor his life as a dedicated soldier whose career in the Army Medical Specialists Corps demonstrated his commitment to the restoration and preservation of life.  To honor him and affirm my family’s identity as a military family, we chose to bury my husband at a national cemetery.  Fort Logan was the closest one to our home and my in-laws’ home.

It has been difficult to visit his gravesite for many reasons.  My family, and my in-laws, reside in Colorado Springs, near Fort Carson.  The traveling distance to such a congested metropolitan area poses great inconveniences for my young family.  At the time of my husband’s death, my children were 9, 5 and 2 ½ years old.  A trip to Fort Logan involves an entire day’s plans and is challenging at times for the children.  With the weather here in Colorado, we mainly make it to Fort Logan, at the most, 2 times per year.   We miss most of our significant special occasions such as birthdays, anniversaries and other holidays because they occur in the fall and winter seasons.  As a family, we try to set a goal to get to Fort Logan at least for Memorial Day.

The effects of limited visits to Fort Logan have had an impact in these first three years of grief not only for my immediate family but also for my mother and father-in-law, my husband’s sisters and their families.  Our family has had decreased participation in commemorative events which occur at Fort Logan.  We have had less opportunities to connect with a military-sensitive and supportive community which can be found among the visitors at Fort Logan.  My family may miss out on one way to continually affirm their military identity.  I, myself, have struggled with having less access to an acceptable place to face the reality of grief and process those complicated emotions.

It is difficult to deal with grief as a younger widow with young children.  Through my involvement with Colorado Military Survivors, I have found that a new generation of widows is emerging.   This new group of widows faces additional struggles in dealing with grief because we do not fit the common stereotype.  I attend a widows support group at Fort Carson which averages from 5-8 participants.  Up until recently, I was the oldest one by at least a decade.  We are finding that we must find a safe place to face our grief, one in which we have opportunity to express our emotions of loss and pain.  That is why we gather and that is why, I wish we were closer to Fort Logan.

The small plot of land that I stake claim to in Denver, holds a vital place in my ability to process my grief.  My husband’s headstone is an immoveable reminder that forces me to face the heartache involved in the unexpected ending of his earthly story.  His headstone solemnly stands among thousands of its kind at Fort Logan.  To most, these pale stones represent so much pain and suffering, but to me they each hold a story.  They are just like a sea of bookends. 

The dates engraved on my husband’s stone tell the beginning and the finale of his life.  His headstone is a fixed mark that causes me to focus on the finale.  A cemetery is an acceptable place in our society to express one’s grief.  Young widows find very few acceptable places to deal with their loss.  With now almost three years of learning in the obstacle course of grief, I realize the necessity of exercising this heartache.  It has taken me a long time to come to the understanding that heartache is strength-training.  It helps transform the weakness of my faith into a powerful conditioned response to my loss.  Once only heartache, pierced through with fear, now has become thanksgiving that appreciates the work of sorrow.

Military loss is more complex, especially for young families that face this sudden tragedy.  Our society still puts expectations on grief “recovery”.  It is a life-long process to learn to move forward with one’s grief.   As an organization, Colorado Military Survivors strives to unite survivors in their loss and help them find strength in a community well-acquainted with sorrow.  My initial connection with one of my dear friends now, also a young widow with 2 young children, was made at Fort Logan  when I discovered that her husband was buried just 2 rows away from mine.  Together we face each day, encouraging each other to press on , to remember, to have faith in God and to grow through our grief in order to help another.  If we were able to be closer to a place that would help us face these challenges with greater strength, we could be more effective in encouraging a new generation of grieving families by affirming their value and by assuring them of the honored place of appreciation that their loved ones hold in our community.