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The war widow

The war in Afghanistan is one of the longest in U.S. history, but Elizabeth Woods knew little about it. Then she fell in love with a soldier. Now she is part of a growing sisterhood of women whose husbands have died in the war on terror.

By Elizabeth Leland
eleland@charlotteobserver.com
STF
TODD SUMLIN - THE CHARLOTTE OBSERVER
7/2/2010 Elizabeth Woods's husband, Brian, died in Afghanistan. PHOTO COURTESY OF ELIZABETH WOODS

More Information

  • Home videos: One of last conversations with Brian
  • Scrapbook memories
  • The war widow
  • The war widow
  • Read the full War Widow series
  • Blog: Still the same, only stronger
  • This narrative is based on military records, interviews with Brian Woods' teammates, his sergeant and other military personnel, Elizabeth Woods, her family and friends, as well as Brian's family and friends.

    In situations where only Brian and Elizabeth were present, the story is based on Elizabeth's recollection of events.

    Other sources included news reports, military historian James Hogue of UNC Charlotte, the nonprofit Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors ( www.taps.org), Gold Star Wives of America ( www.goldstarwives .org ), icasualties.org, www.americanwidowproject.org , journalism.berkeley.edu/ and www.state.gov.


  • Sept. 27: Elizabeth Woods knew little about the Afghan war. Then she falls in love with a soldier.

    Sept. 28: While Brian Woods waits to be called up for duty, he plans a surprise wedding.

    Sept. 29: After tragedy tests their marriage, Brian is deployed to Afghanistan.

    Sept. 30 Five weeks later, Brian is shot by the Taliban.

    Oct. 1: Elizabeth spends her last hours with Brian in a hospital in Germany.

    Oct. 2: Elizabeth tries to find a way to live without Brian.

    Oct. 3: Elizabeth helps other widows love life again.



In the last video Elizabeth Woods took of her husband before he was killed in Afghanistan, Brian tries to reassure her that he will be all right, that his six months at war will pass quickly and soon they will be together again.

"It's hard for me, too," he says. "I'm going to miss you a lot."

In 11 years in the military, Brian had earned a reputation as an adrenaline junkie, not afraid to risk his life. But on the video, he is soft-spoken, almost shy at his wife's attention.

"I just have to go and do a job somewhere else," he tells Elizabeth.

Fight a war.

It's what Brian trained for his whole life. He was the medic on a Special Forces team of National Guard Green Berets, being sent into combat to fight alongside Afghan soldiers and train them to take over the war against the Taliban.

Before she met him, Elizabeth, like many Americans, didn't pay much attention to what was going on in Afghanistan. The war on terror was on the other side of the world, easy to ignore if you didn't know anyone over there - and most of us didn't.

But in July 2009, as Brian packed to go, President Barack Obama was shifting the focus from Iraq to Afghanistan, sending in thousands of fresh troops to try to destroy the terrorists' base of operations.

The fighting had escalated. More Americans were dying. The war was coming home with their flag-draped coffins.

Elizabeth filmed the video, one last memory of Brian, just in case.

Elizabeth has watched the video so often, as many as eight times in a single day, that she no longer cries when she sees Brian's face and hears his voice. She can recite what each of them said, as if she were reciting dialogue from a movie.

She has watched the video so many times that their daughter, Ella, now 20 months old, recognizes her father's face on the computer screen.

"Dada!" Ella cries out as the video plays. She presses her body into Elizabeth's legs, a little girl's unspoken way of asking to be picked up so she can watch, too.

When Elizabeth looks at Ella, she sees Brian. Ella has her father's full cheeks, the same earnest puppy-dog look about her eyes. When she doesn't get her way, she squinches up her nose and sticks out her lower lip the way Brian did.

Ella is too young to understand that "Dada" is not a face on a computer screen.

Something about him

Elizabeth met Brian on an online dating site in February 2006, 31/2 years before he left for Afghanistan. He was living in Fayetteville, training at Fort Bragg to become a Green Beret.

She liked his picture, the way he looked directly into the camera. There was nothing cocky or secretive about him, like some of the other men looking for dates. There were no beer cans or women at the edge of his photo.

Elizabeth had never been around anyone in the military, except her grandfather who fought in World War II. She was a dancer, a poet, something of a free spirit. She played the flute, made pottery, designed jewelry. Her friends were artists, too.

She moved on to the next guy on the dating website.

But something kept drawing her back to the soldier. He had a slight curl of a smile, a gentleness about his eyes. He was 28. She was 24.

What have I got to lose? she thought.

She sent him the online version of a wink.

First, a few e-mails

Brian wrote back a short note, telling her about his 2-year-old daughter, asking whether Elizabeth liked children and other questions: What is your favorite movie? What music do you listen to?

Elizabeth told him about watching "The Last of the Mohicans" 11 times.

Yes, she wanted children. If she was going to be in a relationship, he would have to love children, too.

Back and forth, they corresponded that first day, each time revealing a little more.

Elizabeth could never have imagined how their chance encounter on the Internet would transform her life.

The United States had been fighting in Afghanistan for a little over four years. Two hundred and sixty-one Americans had died. But before she met Brian, war was not a part of her world. She knew nothing yet about the bond of brotherhood that Brian shared with other soldiers, a bond that would sustain her through the darkest year of her life.

She would live more, and suffer more, over the next few years than many do in a lifetime.

She would grow and mature as a woman. Over time, she would learn not only to look inward at her grief, but to look outward to a sisterhood who lost their loved ones, too.

Then, a phone call

The day after they first e-mailed, Brian asked for her telephone number. When Elizabeth answered the phone, she heard a soft voice, not at all the voice she imagined a soldier would have.

She said he told her that her voice wasn't what he expected, either. It sounded deeper than most women's voices, soothing.

He talked about his childhood outside St. Louis, hunting in the woods, parachuting off bridges, skydiving. He was third-generation military and grew up hungry for the challenge and camaraderie of war.

Like Staff Sgt. James in the movie "The Hurt Locker," Sgt. 1st Class Brian Woods thrived on the edge.

When he was just a boy, he lit some gunpowder and it blew up in his face; he spent months in the burn unit. When he was in high school, he shot himself in the leg to see what it felt like.

Elizabeth told him about growing up in Big Rapids, Mich., about her two older sisters who dressed her up like a doll when she was little. Elizabeth sewed her own clothes, choreographed her own dances.

She enrolled at UNC Charlotte her first year in college because her sister lived here. Then she transferred to UNC Asheville where she could design her major, a degree in Human Expressions in Culture with an emphasis on dance and anthropology. Now she was working as a teacher's assistant at a Montessori school in Asheville and studying to become a doula, to help women in childbirth.

Her parents were college professors. They were skeptical of war and so was she.

Brian was politically conservative.

Elizabeth was liberal.

He wore camouflage.

In college, she wore her hair in dreadlocks.

A passion for life

Somehow their differences didn't matter.

They both were looking for a serious, stable relationship. They wanted children. They believed in traveling, trying new things, and they admired that passion in each other.

Brian told Elizabeth about his first marriage. She confided about hers.

They talked on the phone that first time for eight hours, through supper, past midnight, to 3 in the morning, and even then, it was hard to say goodbye.

The next day, Brian drove from the beach, where he was vacationing, across North Carolina to Asheville to meet Elizabeth. She smiles as she describes what happened when she opened the door:

For a moment, they stood there, looking into each other's eyes.

Brian spoke first. You're absolutely beautiful, he said, and ran his fingers through her hair. Then he drew her to him, his arms strong and muscular, yet tender in their embrace.

They kissed, a long, slow kiss, and Elizabeth brushed aside any fear she had about falling in love with a soldier.

Tuesday: Elizabeth moves in with Brian, then he leaves for Iraq.

Reach writer Elizabeth Leland at eleland@charlotteobserver.com or 704-358-5074.
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