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Forever changed but never alone

By Elizabeth Leland
eleland@charlotteobserver.com

More Information

  • Elizabeth moves forward, with Soul Widows
  • Blog: Still the same, only stronger
  • Read the full War Widow series
  • Sept. 26: Elizabeth Woods knew little about the Afghan war. Then she falls in love with a soldier.

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

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

    Thursday: Five weeks later, Brian is shot by the Taliban.

    Friday: Elizabeth spends Brian's last hours with him in a hospital in Germany.

    Saturday: Without Brian, Elizabeth struggles to find her purpose.

    Today: Elizabeth helps other widows love life again.


  • This narrative is based on military records, as well as interviews with Brian Woods' teammates, his sergeant and other Army personnel. Also interviewed were Elizabeth Woods, her parents and sister, her friends and soul widows, as well as Brian's friends and members of his family.

    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, http://journalism.berkeley.edu/ and www.state.gov.


  • Most casualties are men, and support groups are aimed at helping widows. More than 5,700 troops have died in Afghanistan and Iraq. The American Widows Project estimates half were married.

    Support groups:

    Soul Widows ( www.soulwidows.org ) is the nonprofit Elizabeth Woods formed to connect with other young widows, military or not. Elizabeth will host a retreat Nov. 5-7 at Marilyn's Melrose Inn in Tryon. It will include personal interaction, group therapy, art therapy, rituals and journal writing.

    Young Widow ( www.ywbb.org) is the online forum where Elizabeth and Tiffany Kohlstrom met. The nonprofit provides a place for widows and widowers to connect online.

    Gold Star Wives of America ( www.goldstarwives.org), formed in 1945 by widows whose husbands died in World War II, provides "service, support and friendship." It has 10,000 members in 60 chapters.

    American Widow Project ( www.americanwidowproject .org ) emphasizes healing through sharing stories. The site was founded by Taryn Davis after her husband was killed by roadside bombs in May 2007.

    Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors ( www.taps.org) provides peer-based emotional support, crisis intervention and grief and trauma resources for anyone who has suffered the loss of a military loved one.



The story so far: As winter turns to spring, Elizabeth Woods studies about grief, trying to find a way to live without her husband, Brian.

Elizabeth no longer wore her wedding band. She was no longer Brian's wife. She was Brian's widow. Instead, she wore a "widow's ring," two midnight-black sapphire teardrops shaped into a broken heart.

She sought out other widows to talk with, and one night came across a posting on an online forum by Tiffany Kohlstrom of Ware, Mass.

Her story sounded all too familiar.

Tiffany's husband, Dan, had been in the Special Forces, and was working as a medic for a company in Afghanistan. Like Brian, Dan planned their wedding. Like Brian, he promised the job would be his last in a war zone.

Dan died in September 2009, a month after Brian.

When Elizabeth talked with Tiffany, she said she felt as if her heart filled up. It seemed as if Brian and Dan brought them together.

"We are soul widows," Tiffany told her.

Elizabeth was struggling with what to do with her life. Two years earlier, after her son died at birth, she thought she might counsel other women who lost children. But then Ella was born and she never followed up on the idea. Now, she felt drawn to help other widows.

She had studied counseling, had been in therapy herself and believed healing must focus not only on the spirit, but also on the mind and the body.

The more widows she talked with, the more she became convinced she could use her experience with grief to help others. Unfortunately, she told her sisters, grief seems to be what I'm an expert at.

A shared heartache

Brian, she believed, made a difference in the world. Elizabeth wanted to make a difference, too.

She designed a website, www.soulwidows.org, and included resources to nurture widows and help them move forward. The inspiration for the name came from Tiffany. In July, in the mountain town of Tryon, Elizabeth hosted the first in a series of retreats for widows.

It didn't matter to her if a woman's husband died in war or in a car accident or from a heart attack.

What mattered is, they shared a heartache.

At the funeral home a year earlier, another war widow had assured Elizabeth that she would recover, and one day be strong again. Elizabeth did not believe it.

Now she found herself telling other widows the same thing.

A touching tribute

Still, she dreaded the arrival of Aug. 14, 2010, the anniversary of the day Brian was shot. Though doctors did not declare Brian dead until two days later, Elizabeth thinks of Aug. 14 as the day her husband died.

One of Brian's teammates wrote: "His spirit passed on the field of battle in the arms of his fellow warriors watching over him. ... I have to imagine, knowing the kind of man and soldier he was, that he would not have it any other way. The strength of his heart kept his body alive long enough for Elizabeth to be at his side for its last beat. Because it belonged to her."

On this Aug. 14, Elizabeth relived each painful hour of the year before. She also thought about the future. She used to tease Brian about being four years older than she was. She turns 29 on Saturday. Brian will always be 31. The passage of years will put more distance between them. It is strange to think about. When she is 60, Brian will still be 31, "always young, strong and full of life."

Five of his 11 teammates came to Charlotte to be with Elizabeth on Aug. 14. They had been there for Brian. They would, they promised Elizabeth, always be there for her.

They gathered at Latta Plantation, where Brian's memorial ceremony was held. But instead of mourning his death, they celebrated his life.

They shared stories about what a daredevil he was, smart and energetic, forever stepping up to help someone else.

Brian died, his teammates told Elizabeth, doing what he loved.

Their team leader telephoned Elizabeth that same day. He was back in combat, calling from a military outpost in the Ghazni province in southeastern Afghanistan.

On an outside wall in big red block letters is the name of the compound, painted there a year ago by a team of soldiers grieving for the one they lost:

Camp Brian W. Woods.

Moving forward

During their 31/2 years together, Elizabeth followed Brian and his passion. He taught her about the brotherhood of soldiers who love each other and die for each other.

Elizabeth would never choose war. But she respects the people who do. She has a deep appreciation now for the commitment, not only of the troops, but of their families.

"Before I met Brian," she said, "I was just so anti-violence and anti-guns that I didn't give much thought to what is behind war. As time went by, I gained more respect for the military and the sacrifices these people are willing to make. They're trying to make a difference in the world. There are humanitarian efforts involved. It's not all about just picking up a gun and shooting it."

Since Brian's death, Elizabeth discovered her passion, for the sisterhood of widows left behind. In November, she will host a second weekend retreat for women whose husbands have died.

When she looks back over the year, she is surprised at how far she has come.

"It still hurts like hell, like a knife's going through me," she said, "but I no longer have moments of feeling I have no control."

After months of anguish and indecision, Elizabeth is moving forward. She is selling Mary Kay cosmetics, hoping to earn a pink SUV. She has written a children's book about grief.

She is in love again. Brian told her that's what he wanted for her if he died.

She still grieves. She still finds herself overwhelmed with sadness when she least expects it, and probably always will. But she is doing something she could not imagine a year ago.

Smiling.

An inner strength

"I thought I would never be happy again," Elizabeth said. "Only through the support of my family and friends and other widows did I ever get this far. I wouldn't be here without a community. I want to offer that to other widows. I want them to be able to feel like there are more blessings to come."

Elizabeth's strength amazes Brian's sister, Catrina Kelemen, who flew with her to the hospital in Germany after Brian was shot.

"She was very dependent on Brian," Catrina said. "They did everything together. They were everything together. When he was killed, everyone was afraid how she would react. Most people just internalize it, and it becomes about what they want and they need. She's reached out to other people. She's found this inner strength that I don't think she even knew she had."

The endless war

World War I was The Great War. World War II, The Good War. The war on terror is The Endless War.

Since October 2001, when President George W. Bush launched the first attack, about 1,300 U.S. service members have died in Afghanistan. More than 7,200 have been wounded. An untold number have returned with post traumatic stress disorder and other emotional problems.

Two weeks ago, nine Americans were killed in a helicopter crash, making 2010 the deadliest year for U.S. forces in nine years at war, with more than 350 deaths so far and three months to go.

Fifty-three percent of Americans say the costs of the war outweigh the benefits, according to a Washington Post-ABC News poll in July.

Elizabeth says she has to believe the war is worth fighting. Brian believed that, and he gave his life for the cause.

Nearly 100,000 U.S. troops are now stationed in Afghanistan, more than double the number when President Barack Obama took office in January 2009. He promised to begin withdrawing troops next summer. But Gen. David Petraeus, head of the U.S. forces, said recently Americans should not expect quick results.

To most people in the United States, the war still seems a world away. For families of the troops, with the help of technology, that world has shrunk.

Today, like every other day, soldiers will leave the battlefield and telephone home. Their calls will come from an ever-increasing number of military bases named in memory of their comrades killed in the war on terror:

From Camp Woods and Camp Eggers, Camp Lybert and Camp Blessing, Camp Cunningham, Outpost Restrepo and Camp Tillman. ...

It will be nighttime in Afghanistan, midday or morning here.

Somewhere in the United States, a wife will be waiting - the way Elizabeth Woods waited - for a call that never comes.

Elizabeth Leland: 704-358-5074
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