No one understands the pain of losing a partner to war more than those who have experienced it, say two young widows who found strength and support in each other.
It’s not easy to think of yourself as a widow at 25.
Even after the Army chaplain arrives with the news from faraway Iraq. Even days later, when a flag-draped casket is lowered from a small aircraft at Joint Base Lewis-McChord.
And even days after that, when a bugler plays taps, a 21-gun salute is sounded and the man you love is laid to rest beneath the crunchy green lawn at Tahoma National Cemetery east of Kent.
A 1 p.m. program to honor those who are serving, or have served, in the military will be at Tahoma National Cemetery, 18600 SE 240th St., Kent.
“When you hear the word ‘widow,’ you think of someone much older,” said Melanie Anderson, of Roy, Pierce County. “To be 25 and a widow with a 16-month-old is not what you envisioned for your life.”
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No one — not well-meaning relatives, friends, co-workers or military officials — understands that reality as much as others walking the same path.
A few years ago, at a dinner of war widows who had come together through the military’s Survivor Outreach Services, Anderson met Amanda Milledge of Gig Harbor, who had been widowed at 24.
The last name was familiar to Anderson. She had seen it carved into a granite headstone only a few paces from her husband’s in the cemetery that holds the remains of some 33,000 military members and 11,000 dependents, and which will host a Memorial Day observance at 1 p.m. Monday.
Sgt. Joseph Bradley Ryan Milledge Sr., 23, and a comrade were killed in October 2007 by a bomb blast while their unit was searching for weapons in Baghdad.
Five months later, Sgt. Phillip Reid Anderson, 28, was one of four soldiers killed when the vehicle Anderson was driving hit a roadside bomb northwest of Baghdad.
The two men had never met. Their graves sit at the ends of parallel rows along a cemetery road that offers, on a clear day, a majestic view of Mount Rainier.
Like Melanie Anderson, Amanda Milledge had been reluctant to identify with the term “widow” and its connotations. But in meeting other young widows, she found friendships that went beyond labels.
“We just knew each other’s pain without having to go into it,” Amanda Milledge said of Melanie Anderson.
Help for military widows, widowers
For information on the nonprofit Washington Warrior Widows, see washingtonwarriorwidows.org.
Besides the heartache, the two women learned they had much in common:
Each had met her husband at Joint Base Lewis-McChord. Each man was an Army sergeant, killed on his second deployment to Iraq.
Each of the men left behind a son barely a year old. And while the boys, now 8, have no detailed memories of their fathers, each is turning into a miniature version of his dad.
“I have a little piece of Phil forever, which I love,” Anderson said.
Amanda Milledge and Melanie Anderson are members of Washington Warrior Widows, a nonprofit formed in 2014 by Stephanie Groepper, of Puyallup, who was 22 when her husband, Cpl. Chad Groepper, was killed in Iraq in 2008.
Groepper, a volunteer mentor in the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS), said surviving spouses often are initially in denial, not wanting to ask for help.
But then after about a year, when the left-behind spouse may be ready to seek help, it’s often not clear where they should turn, as if they are expected to be “all better” by then.
The group has compiled a resource list for widows and widowers, and seeks to have members and volunteers available for tasks as simple as mowing a lawn, and as complex as navigating medical insurance at a hospital emergency room.
Mothers, children “not alone”
For young Joey Milledge and Warner Anderson, time together means not having to explain — or feel strange about — the fact that their fathers aren’t coming home.
“It’s just that unspoken bond that there is someone else that knows how he’s feeling,” said Milledge. “I think it puts him at ease to know he’s not alone. They call each other brother.”
Last summer, they both attended the Moyer Foundation’s Camp Erin, for youngsters who have lost a loved one, and this summer, they’ll attend Camp Corral for children of wounded, disabled or fallen military service members.
The boys and their moms get together for barbecues, play dates, sleepovers and trips to the beach.
One thing they don’t do together, however, is visit the cemetery.
For these two women, a cemetery visit is a private time for quiet reflection and silent conversation with a missing partner, and a chance to keep the men real in the lives of their sons.
“I always kiss the top of the headstone and say, ‘Love you, Babe,’ ” Amanda Milledge said. In her visits, about twice a month, she’ll use a moist towelette to wipe away any grime that has collected in the letters of his name.
Melanie Anderson, on visits she makes every couple of months, will lightly touch her late husband’s marker, renewing her connection, and update him about what’s happened since she was last there.
During the visits, each of the women invites her son to connect with his dad, but only to the extent he can handle.
Getting water from a nearby faucet for cone-shaped vases comes easy to the boys. Speaking to a stone does not. Tears are shed.
After spending a few moments with his arms wrapped around his father’s marker, Joey Milledge said he told his dad, “I’m glad that you were a hero, and I’m sorry you had to leave.”
Warner Anderson, on a recent visit, stood quietly beside the baseball-shaped balloon he brought, a symbol of the enthusiasm for sports he inherited.
As important as these visits are, Milledge and Anderson want their sons to know that their dads were more than gravestones.
Joseph Milledge, who went by his middle name, “Brad,” was a fun-loving cutup who made his wife laugh with back flips and karate moves, and never let a day pass without telling her she was beautiful.
Phillip Anderson was a hard worker, funny, smart and almost always smiling, who called his wife a princess and made her feel important, even on a bad day.
The boys’ bedrooms are alive with photos of their fathers.
Another thing these two women have in common is that they have found new love, with men willing to accept that the lost soldiers will remain important.
“Always and forever” reads the tattoo on Amanda’s foot, an allegiance to her late husband she intends to keep. She and her new partner, Sean Gotcher, have a 5-year-old daughter, Addison.
“Brad told me that if something happened to him, he wanted me to go on with my life, to find someone to be with,” Amanda Milledge said. “Of course, when he first said it, I said, ‘Aw, shaddup,’ but we both knew …”
Melanie Anderson and her partner, Charles Murphy, have two daughters: Annabelle, 4, and Kennedy, 2.
She’ll always make it clear to Warner who his dad is, following the spirit of the letter Phil Anderson sent her four months before his death:
“Please show him pictures of me every day,” the handwritten letter said. “I would be heartbroken when I come home and (he) doesn’t know who I am. I fear that more than not coming back at all.”