The story so far: Elizabeth Woods spent her last night with Brian in a German hospital, holding his hand and talking about their 3 1/2 years together. He died Aug. 16, 2009, the 785th U.S. casualty in the war in Afghanistan.
A few weeks after Brian Woods' funeral in August 2009, a soldier from Fort Bragg brought Elizabeth all of Brian's papers from Afghanistan.
On the top of the stack of charts, gun notes and photographs was a plastic bag. Inside the bag were three sheets from a small yellow pad, folded in half. On the outside of the top sheet were five words in Brian's handwriting:
"To my wife Elizabeth Woods."
Elizabeth unfolded the pages and began to read: "I love you so much and it hurts to know I will never see your face or hold you in this world."
Brian had always written beautifully about his feelings for her. In this letter, the one many soldiers write before going into battle, he told Elizabeth that her strength amazed him, especially after their son, Tookie, died. He said he felt out of her league, and was always trying to impress her, to be more like her.
"You have made me feel so lucky and special," he wrote, "and most of all loved."
Elizabeth clung to each word.
She stayed in bed at her sister's house in Marvin, south of Charlotte, and read and re-read Brian's last letter. She wore one of his T-shirts, and cuddled another shirt in her arms. The shirts smelled of Brian, and she buried her nose in the folds.
She didn't watch TV. She didn't read magazines or newspapers. She couldn't face any reminders that the world was moving on.
She studied about grief. She sought help from a therapist and from a support group for widows at St. Gabriel Catholic Church. She spent much of each day trying to find a way to live without Brian.
A widow, Elizabeth thought, should be old and gray with years of memories to sustain her. Elizabeth was 27. She and Brian had been together only 31/2 years.
Like Brian, who was 31, most service members killed in Iraq and Afghanistan have been young. Nearly nine of every 10 were under 35, according to military records. The American Widows Project estimates that half of the more than 5,700 killed were married.
Their wives are young like Elizabeth, many with small children. They knew the risks, but they trusted the odds: Most troops return home.
Facing the future
Elizabeth staggered through the last months of 2009.
Sept. 8, Brian's birthday, was especially painful. Then Thanksgiving. And Christmas.
January was the worst. In January, Brian would have come home, his six-month deployment over. He and Elizabeth would have celebrated their third wedding anniversary and Ella's first birthday. They would have mourned the day Tookie died at birth.
In January, Brian's team of Green Berets returned to the States without him.
As February passed into March, and March into April, Elizabeth forced herself to face her future. Gradually, an idea evolved.
Loss was such a big part of her life - first the death of her son, now her husband - she felt she could help guide other women through grief. She had studied counseling, and had always wanted to work with women. She was a good listener, compassionate and supportive.
The more she read and reflected on grief, the more Elizabeth thought: "This is my calling."
But first she had one last military ceremony to attend.
A name on a wall
In 1995, when the Army dedicated a memorial at Fort Bragg to Special Operations soldiers killed in combat since the Korean War, it left what it assumed would be space on three bronze plaques for the casualties of future wars.
The Army didn't foresee Iraq and Afghanistan.
This year, on May 27, the Special Operations Command unveiled a wall with the names of 1,113 soldiers killed since Korea and room for more. The Army invited families of the 35 Special Operations soldiers who died the previous year.
It was the third ceremony Elizabeth had attended since Brian was killed. She felt embraced by a larger military family, watching out for its own, while the rest of the country seemed disconnected from the war and its consequences.
But the ceremonies returned her to the past when she needed to look to the future. She decided this would be her last.
A bell tolled as soldiers read aloud the names added to the wall: Sgt. Nicholas A. Robertson ... Sgt. James M. Treber ... Chief Warrant Officer 2 Douglas M. Vose III ... The eighth toll honored Sgt. First Class William B. Woods Jr.
After the ceremony, Elizabeth wove a path through the crowd, her daughter, Ella, perched on her hip, a red rose in one hand. Lily, 6, who is Brian's daughter from his first marriage, walked beside them to the wall.
"Where's his name?" Lily asked.
Elizabeth scanned the black granite until she came to the 14th column, the 19th name down: "SFC William B Woods Jr." She reached toward the letters and, for a few moments, her fingers lingered.
Nearby, a young widow cried, tears wetting her face. Elizabeth recognized the pain. She had been marooned in grief for so long, raw with emotion, unable to find her way. But on that afternoon at Fort Bragg, nine months after Brian was killed, she allowed only a single tear to run down her cheek.
It was time to move forward, like her soldier.
Sunday: Elizabeth reaches out to widows.
Elizabeth Leland: 704-358-5074
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