When she was just 21, Taryn received devastating news: Her husband, Corporal Michael Davis, had been killed in Iraq. While her family provided emotional support, she still felt lost and alone. When her Google search for “widow” turned up the result: “Do you mean window?” she knew she had to take action. Taryn created The American Widow Project to provide resources to the 3,000+ other women around the country whose husbands have died in Iraq and Afghanistan. This national movement has served and united over 700 widows so far, using peer-to-peer retreats, counseling, and virtual tools.
We talked to Taryn about the roadblocks she's faced with her Project, along with her ultimate goals.
DoSomething.org: How did you feel when you first learned of the problem you’re addressing?
Taryn Guerrero Davis: I first learned of the problem I’m addressing by two men [in] uniform. What they would tell me would change the course of my entire life forever. (The Secretary of Defense regrets to inform you...) Within a ten day span, at 21 years old, I learned of my husband’s death in Baghdad, Iraq, planned a funeral, and stood at a podium giving his eulogy. A month after his death I felt more isolated and alone than I ever had in my whole life.
Nobody wanted to talk about what had happened to Michael and I. I had nobody who understood or who could help me embrace my new title...military widow.
DS: How do you feel about it now?
TGD: Through the support that we are able to provide for military widows and the support that they have given me, we are able to stand proud of not only our hero and our own sacrifice, but also of our survival.
DS: What person or experience sticks with you from when you first started your project?
TGD: The experience that sticks with me the most since becoming a military widow, was actually meeting another widow. Glenda Carter is a Vietnam War widow, who at the age of 19 lost her 18-year-old husband. It was in meeting her that she explained the importance of connecting with those who understand our pain. Through sharing our stories, we are carrying on the legacy of our heroes and creating a voice for those who have lost a loved one while serving in the military.
DS: Who or what is your inspiration to keep going?
TGD: My husband Michael is my biggest inspiration. Before meeting any other widows I would think of the things that Michael taught and instilled in me when he was alive. The widows I meet also inspire me to keep the American Widow Project moving forward. I know how much it means to them to have a place where they feel normal, where they can be who they are and share their feelings.
DS: Can you describe the moment you knew that you were actually making a difference?
TGD: Military widows come from all over the country for a weekend event with the hopes of finding someone who understands first hand what they have been through. The first night is usually a laid back evening where we just hang out, eat pizza, and get to know each other. We share our stories, laugh, cry and most importantly bond through our shared tragedy. Rather than conventional therapy meetings, we plan activities and go out into the world to be reminded that it is possible to laugh, heal and live with enthusiasm and strength. By the end of the weekend, most of the widows share how the weekend has changed their outlook on life and they are able to leave with a sense of peace knowing they are not alone. As one widow has said, “I feel like I have a new lease on life”.
DS: What was the most difficult roadblock you faced when you tried to start your project? When you were growing it?
TGD: [I started] an organization from the ground up for military widows just four months after the death of my soul mate. I was going through my own grief, but I also knew I needed to find someone who could understand my pain. The biggest challenge as a grassroots organization is having the ability to reach out to all of the military widows in our society. There are many widows out there who have yet to know about the support organizations available to them. Another challenge/goal is to sustain funding to continue expanding our outreach and services to military widows across the United States. Thankfully, due to increasing support and coverage through the media and other sources, more military widows are able to find us sooner and have the valuable support so desperately needed.
DS: What’s been the biggest lesson through the process?
TGD: The biggest lesson I’ve learned is to follow my heart. Death, grief, and support are all tough things to master. Combining that into an organization isn’t an easy task, so doing what felt and feels right to my heart has been the best lesson to have learned and now utilize.
DS: What has surprised you the most about the journey that has taken you here today?
TGD: From creating a documentary for military widows to hosting getaway events throughout the country, it is amazing see how much the American Widow Project has grown in just a few short years. We fill up the RSVP list for events within minutes and the demand is continually growing. Each year, the support we receive from the outside community solidifies the fact that we are doing something great, something desperately needed, and most importantly people are realizing and starting to understand that there is another side of our heroes sacrifice.
DS: What advice do you have for other young leaders who are having a tough time getting their ideas off of the ground?
TGD: Believe in your cause and follow your heart and passion. Use your life experiences to be the fuel that drives you to make change in this world. Lastly, it takes vision and courage to create change and make a difference, never lose faith in the fact that both are already there inside of you.
DS: If you could have done one thing differently based on what you know now, what would it be and why?
TGD: I would have started it sooner! Though I started the organization just four months after Michael’s death, I wish others could have found the support they needed in the earlier days of their hero’s death.
DS: What’s next for your project?
TGD: My ultimate goal is that every military widow of this generation knows she is not alone. By coming together, we create a community of understanding and trust. Hopefully, with time and support, these women can and will embrace life to the fullest extent as they would have with their heroes. There is also a stigma that goes along with the word “widow”, not only is this obviously synonymous with death, but most also perceive the word widow with someone much older than a 23 or 30-year-old. With more awareness, hopefully people will understand when that young soldier or marine lost his/her life, there was someone back at home who was awaiting their return, whose life was also just shattered. With more awareness, there is more understanding and support for these women. I hope to continue expanding the American Widow Project and to make this organization available to all widows in the first days of being notified of their spouse’s death. We look forward to creating more events more often to accommodate the demand to attend our getaway events.
Bonus Question: If you could have any celebrity film a PSA for you, who would it be and why?
TGD: I think Natalie Portman would be a great representative for this generation’s military widows. She’s around the average age range of those who have lost the heroes of our current wars, is one of the most recognizable female actors of our time, and has been known to help advocate many needed issues in our world today.