In the kitchen of a vacation rental in southern California, family pictures form a collage on the refrigerator.
On closer inspection the photos are of multiple families, and many of the women in the photos are sitting together around the kitchen table nearby. The photos are from their weddings or pictures of children. This is a typical, makeshift family scrapbook at an American Widow Project retreat.
During the height of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the women seeking help from the group were young, with husbands who had been killed in combat. Today the widows contacting the organization are older, and their husbands aren’t dying abroad — they’re dying on American soil.
“I have to say, I haven’t genuinely laughed as much as I’ve laughed with these ladies, and shared things that … that I know that they understand,” says Erin Murzyn.
At 43 years old, Murzyn wondered if she would be the oldest widow, and on the first day of the retreat she was nervous.
“A lot of widows, military widows are young,” Murzyn says. “[I thought] am I going to be the only suicide widow? Like, is everyone else going to be KIA?”
She wasn’t the oldest or the only widow whose husband killed himself, rather than being killed in action.
Group facilitator Erin Dructor says she started noticing a trend a couple years ago when the majority of women contacting the nonprofit reported they had lost their husbands to suicide or terminal illness.
“Each event is about 70 percent non-combat [widows],” she says.
Dructor got involved with the American Widow Project a decade ago after her husband, Army Sgt. Blake Stephens, was killed in Iraq. Back then, she says, the women’s stories often began the same way: With two uniformed men in the driveway or on the porch.
“Now, it’s almost like the widows are finding their husbands, or family members are finding their husbands,” Dructor says.
In Murzyn’s case it was her brother who told her that her husband, retired Marine Master Sgt. Russell Murzyn, had committed suicide. He was 44.
“He did leave a letter and he put in the letter that his head hurt so bad,” Murzyn says. “And he didn’t feel he could be fixed.”
Russell had served two tours in Iraq and was being treated by the VA when he died. His widow says she didn’t realized how bad things had become — that he was a wonderful new father and kept his feelings inside to protect those he loved.
“Russell was that Marine that other Marines looked up to,” Murzyn says. “He was the guy that they went to with problems.”
Like Murzyn, 47-year-old Jenny Much is attending her first American Widow Project retreat.
“I was pretty tore up one night and I — just crying, sobbing, or whatever — and I went online searching for military widow communities,” Much says.
Her husband, Navy Lt. Cmdr. Jason Much died of brain cancer in July. He was 44. When he was diagnosed she asked him “Sweetie, what do you want to do? If we have a year, what do you want to do? Do you want to travel the world?”
” ‘He’s like ‘Really? — I’ve been all over the world. I want to stay home and watch football,’ ” she says.
For more than two decades, Jenny Much was a Navy wife. Two months after her husband died she moved out of her house, bought an RV and drove across the country visiting friends in the military community. But she soon realized she was not a part of the active-duty world anymore. Now, the women of the American Widow Project are her adopted military family.
“The inspiration I get hearing their stories — and they can talk about their late husbands and laugh, and tell stories, and cry, and that’s helping me.” Much says. “I have hope. That’s the word — I have hope.”
And hope is what Much is taking with her from this retreat. After a few months in the RV, she’s now thinking it might be time to put down roots — and start looking for a new home.