Monday, October 4, 2010

Elizabeth Wood's family says "Thank you"

The outpouring of support after Brian Woods was killed in August 2009 amazed and touched Elizabeth's family. An untold number of people reached out and surrounded them with care, love and support. Elizabeth doesn't know the names of many who helped her through her grief.

Her sister, Jennifer Burns of Marvin, asked me to relay a message of thanks:

"Your act of kindness, no matter how slight it seemed to you, made a significant difference in helping us move through the grieving process. We know that many of you were grieving too, which makes your words and gifts all the more special. Each and every person who touched our lives over the last year will always hold a special place in our hearts. Each and every member of the military will always have our admiration and respect. Thank you."

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Still the same, only stronger

As Brian Woods was being kept alive on life support in a hospital in Germany, Elizabeth wondered aloud: Without you, who am I?

This week, a little over a year after he died, I asked Elizabeth how she would answer the question now. This is what she said:

"I would probably define myself as a person who is now stronger than I ever thought I could be. I'm still the same woman that Brian knew and loved, but I also have a new level of wisdom about the fragility of life.

"I also don't get as upset about some of the "smaller" things in life anymore. I can always say, 'it could be worse.' It gives me a new perspective about not wasting too much time over issues that used to cause me more stress.

"I've also learned a lesson in how little control we have in life. We can choose how we react or respond to things, but we do not have a choice in how life unfolds in many cases. We have to learn to make the most out of what we have.

"I think that through Brian, I learned the important lesson of pushing forward and not giving up just because things get hard. I think I have always had that outlook, but through losing half of my family, I understand what it takes.

"I also look at my Ella and know that I want to provide the best life for her. She gives me such a strong drive and motivation to continue to make the most of life.

"I've also gained more confidence since Brian's passing. Because I've been forced to handle so much, it's given me a bit more of an edge, and I'm not fearful of much anymore. I used to be nervous speaking in front of people, but compared to losing a family member, it's a piece of cake. Things that used to seem like a big deal, just aren't anymore.

"So, I guess I would say that I'm still the same person, but more determined. I've always been a person who likes to be busy, and was always searching for a purpose. I feel that I've found it now ... to help other women through the path of widowhood."

Friday, October 1, 2010

Brian confronts the horrors of war

The last time Elizabeth Woods saw her husband, Brian, alive was the last time they talked by webcam.

Brian didn't look good.

He had been working in the base hospital in Afghanistan for nearly 36 hours, and he was exhausted. He told her about treating wounded men with severed limbs and exploded body parts.

Elizabeth heard a weight in his voice that had never been there. His face looked pale and sallow. His eyes had dark circles around them. His hair stuck out in all directions, disheveled.

"It was incredibly hard seeing him that way," Elizabeth said. "He could barely keep his eyes open. I felt bad even keeping him up on the computer, but he still wanted to see me despite the fact that he was nearly falling over."

Because Brian was a medic, she said, he wasn't easily upset by unpleasant sights. But no matter how much training soldiers have, nothing can prepare them for the horrors of war. "He admitted to me that after some of the things he saw at the hospital, that it definitely shook him up a bit," Elizabeth said. "It was hard on him."

Brian's sister, Catrina Kelemen, also noticed a difference. "I know that he loved his job and his purpose in life was to be an Army man," she said, "but he had also found a new purpose in being a father to his beautiful daughters and a husband to his adoring wife and that made this time different for him."

Brian was at war, something he trained for his whole life. But his heart and soul, she said, were at home.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Too often the widows silently grieve

The first time I met Elizabeth Woods, in late April, she showed me a scrapbook she made of Brian's life. Putting it together, she said, was therapy for her after he was killed. It's a beautiful piece of artwork, and we spent about two hours looking through the pages.

"This is Brian at 10 months old," she said, pointing to a baby. "He looks like our daughter, the same brow bones, the eyes, the chubby cheeks. I get to see him by looking at her face."

We laughed at lot that morning, especially at some of the sillier photographs. Afterward, Elizabeth's sister, Jennifer Burns, told me how wonderful it was to hear Elizabeth talk about Brian and laugh again. "Thank you so much," Jennifer said.

This week, other widows have said the same thing. One woman was passing through Charlotte on her way home to Fort Bragg and saw part of "The War Widow" series. "Unfortunately I happen to be a war widow, too," she said. "You don't really hear so much about the women, especially at Fort Bragg, because we've had a lot of soldiers taken from us."

Elizabeth's sister, Jennifer, clips stories and obituaries about the deaths to make sure Elizabeth knows. "It seems to be every week there will be at least one or two soldiers who have lost their lives and have young wives or families that are going through what I went through just over a year ago," Elizabeth said.

Unfortunately, she added, there are going to be many more.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

War orphan touched by widow's story

The signature on an e-mail this week from Robert H. Meek Jr. of Hickory, who was orphaned during World War II, brought tears to my eyes:

"Proud posthumous son and only child of
2LT Robert H Meek
Co-pilot of B-25 7Z “Shirley Ann”
KIA October 19, 1944 over the Magenta Bridge near Milan Italy
At eternal rest in the Sicily Rome American Cemetery Nettuno Italy."

"As we grow into our golden years we still remember our childhoods being different than our friends'," Meek wrote."Our Daddy died in the war. Some of us knew much of our Dads, some knew virtually nothing."

Meek, who is 65, was born five months after his father was killed in action. He is on the board of the American World War II Orphans Network (, which represents the 183,000 children left fatherless by WWII. "We have a common bond and understanding that we do not even share with our spouses," he said.

I've heard from other military family members who, like Meek, are grateful to Elizabeth Woods for sharing her story and bringing attention to the sacrifice of the troops -- and their families.

A local military Chaplain's mother said she hopes the series will lead to a better understanding "about the enormous challenges that military personnel deployed abroad and their families at home encounter daily."

I've learned a lot. I hope you have, too.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Do we care enough about this war?

A reader wrote in response to "The War Widow" series that it’s been 41 years since she lost her boyfriend to the Vietnam War.

"The pain in the heart," she said, "never heals."

As I write this series about the war in Afghanistan, I find myself thinking back to Vietnam. We were all so vested in that war, love it or hate it. The threat of the draft worried many families with military-age boys, mine included.

Without a draft, the war in Afghanistan does not directly affect many of us. An all-volunteer military shoulders the burden -- and the grief. Elizabeth Woods said Brian sometimes became frustrated by what he perceived as a sense of apathy among most Americans.

"We would be watching dancing on TV, and he would get irritated at the male dancers," Elizabeth said. "He’d say, ‘That guy could be over there helping us right now. Instead he’s prancing around the stage.’ Brian was very cut and dry, more black and white than me."

Other times, they would be enjoying a movie and Brian would remind Elizabeth: "Just remember that a war is going on."

What do you think? Do we pay enough attention to our soldiers in Afghanistan? Is it fair that only a small percentage, the voluntary military, bears the burden?

Monday, September 27, 2010

A gun, a love affair

When I write a story, something usually ends up on the cutting room floor.

In Tuesday's installment of "The War Widow" series, I'll tell you about how Elizabeth and Brian Woods fell in love and married.

In today's blog, I want to tell you what happened on the first day they met. I think it will help you get to know Elizabeth better. She's the type of person who is secure enough in her beliefs that she's open to understanding and accepting opposing beliefs.

"I admire her for that," said her sister, Jennifer Burns of Marvin, who works in global human resources at Bank of America. "If someone doesn't agree with her, she respects their opinion and tries to understand where they're coming from. More importantly than that, if it's something she's never thought about before, she thinks about it and decides if this would affect her beliefs."

So, this is what happened that first day: Brian brought a gun into Elizabeth's apartment in Asheville.

Elizabeth had never before seen a gun up close, much less in her home. She was shocked.

Why, she demanded, did you bring that here?

It's a dangerous world, she remembers Brian saying. You never know when you might need it.

Guns had always been a part of Brian's life. His father was a gunsmith. Brian was a skilled marksman and considered a gun an amazing piece of technology.

On the second day he and Elizabeth spent together, Brian took the gun apart and showed her how the different pieces worked. After he reassembled it, he placed the gun in her hand. It felt heavier than Elizabeth expected. Cold.

She thrust it back at him.

"We opened each other's minds to different ways of looking at life," Elizabeth told me. "We had lots of interesting discussions…. I was in love, no matter what his job was."

No matter what.