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Eternal memorial: Widows remember fallen daily

  • Published
  • By Capt. Belena S. Marquez
  • Air Force Special Operations Command Public Affairs
Gray-haired, with faces creased by time, three women sat around a table, chatting. They looked like grandmothers, but they were more than that.

Shuffling papers on the tabletop and pointing out familiar faces in exchanged photographs, the women marked the passage of time with snippets of conversation about the memory of their husbands and their loss.

They are residents of Bob Hope Village in Shalimar, Fla., a part of the Air Force Enlisted Village that serves the needs of enlisted surviving spouses.

"You're not a spouse, you're a widow," said Donna Forget, a stately woman with close-cropped hair and a straightforward manner.

Though a Memorial Day ceremony occurred May 27, the atmosphere of reflection and perseverance remains. For the three women seated at the table, remembrance of the fallen is an element of their daily lives.

The payments they make

"The loss of a teammate is tough for any organization, but for the family the sacrifice of a loved one is even more devastating," said Chief Master Sgt. William Turner, command chief of Air Force Special Operations Command, during the ceremony. "They are the husbands and wives, children, mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles, cousins and friends of the fallen. They know full well the price of freedom."

It is a cost paid not only by the fallen, but also by the surviving. The memorial continues, not for a period of time, but for eternity.

"It doesn't ever go away," Forget said.

A strong voice, fractured by emotion and time joins in. "We can't forget our spouses. That's for sure," said Choyce Sheehan, her expression earnest. With thick glasses magnifying her expressive eyes, Sheehan was the second of the trio.

"We go back to our apartments, we see our deceased husbands. You know, we live it." Forget said. "We don't go back to our apartments and share a meal with anybody. Normally we have our evening meals by ourselves."

The flow of the conversation shifted to the business of living.

"The wives look after each other" said Peg Polomski, her slight frame and gentle tone contrasted with her friends.

Polomski's voice gently injected positivity to the gathering. "We share stories about our husbands and what they've been through."

The tone of the exchange moved toward contemplation.

How they remember, how they cope

"We do a lot of personal mourning on our own," Sheehan said.

Catharsis took on different forms for each woman. Polomski discussed her work to write and memorize a new memorial poem every year.

"I wanted to tell a story in a poem, the way I felt it should be told," she said.

Sheehan found a passion for history and sympathy for the persistent hurt that those in the past suffered. Forget chose to serve as the Master of Ceremony for the Bob Hope Village Memorial Day ceremony.

"It's very important for everybody here, because everybody here was either in the military or are military spouses," said Forget.

Their reflection turned to the ceremony.

"It was very memorable and there was much emotion in it." Sheehan said.

The day remained fresh in their thoughts. They recalled the flags lining the entrance to the community.

"Our memorial drive," Forget said.

Their words painted images of the steadiness of the Honor Guard and the voice broken in prayer. The current of their dialogue flowed over the patriotic words spoken that day, the history and poetry that was shared.

They remembered Turner's speech during the ceremony.

"In this great country of ours, every generation has moved to the sound of gunfire, and answered our Nation's call," Turner said.

He described the sacrifices of American service members from the Revolutionary War to current conflicts.

"Since the beginnings of our nation we have sent our sons and daughters off to battle, and not all have returned to those who love them," Turner said

Time passed, but the sentiment of his words remained with the people in attendance.

"They truly understood what he was talking about, because the men that are still living have been there, or we as spouses have waited for them, so we truly understood," Forget said.

The Memorial Day ceremony resonated with the Bob Hope Village residents.

"A lot of people got out their handkerchief and dabbed their noses and eyes." Polomski said.

Murmured agreement floated across the table.

After the ceremony

After a beat, a dulcet tone broke the silence.

"It brings back memories," Polomski said. "It takes strength and courage to be a military wife."

With a few words Polomski lifted the group's subdued mood, and they began sharing anecdotes and memories.

"My mother-in-law said to me one day, 'You must be a very special lady because you're a military wife,'" Sheehan said.

Polomski turned and grinned at Sheehan as she relayed a story.

"I met my husband at the Air Force Reserve Officer Training Corps, he was on the staff and I was the secretary," Polomski said. "All six of my children were involved in the service one way or another."

A voice chimed in from the side. Forget described an exchange she had with another resident. She was asked about the photo of her husband that brought her the most sadness. Voice firm and matter-of-fact, Forget described the heartache an image of her husband in his youth brought her.

"That's the way he looked when I met him," she said.

Sheehan relayed her own photograph story. Her husband had a picture that was displayed in a photographer's store early in his career.

"We went back up there after the kids were grown and gone, and the same photo was still there and the same shop was still there, over thirty years later," Sheehan said.

Memories bubbled up in the group. As the conversation waned Sheehan voiced another thought.

"Our husbands are close to us," she said.

Then they discussed grief.

"We try not to dwell on it," said Forget. "You can't let this rule your life; you've got to go on."

Her words were simple, and each of the women bore the action in those words with resilience.

In his address, Turner acknowledged the need for that type of strength.

"I would like to tell you that our teammates will soon no longer be in harm's way," Turner said. "But the fact remains that they will continue to serve, oftentimes at great personal risk.

"And while I would like to say that no more lives will be lost on the battlefield, I cannot, for wherever freedom is challenged, our men and women will be there to answer the call."

Turner augmented his description of the military's dedication and potential for sacrifice with a call to action that surviving spouses and families fulfill daily.

"We must remember," he said. "The story of our nation is written in the blood of heroes, and those heroes wore the fabric of our United States and proudly carried the Stars and Stripes into battle and gave their lives for us. We must remember."

At a table in Bob Hope Village, the memorial ceremony was in the past. As the women stood to leave, the initial impression of grandmotherly age and bearing was overlaid with an element that was both vulnerable and venerable. There was something undefinable in the way they carried themselves that spoke of stoutness and conviction. Time passed, but remembrance remained.

"After the ceremony, you just have to adjust. Pull up your socks and carry on," said Sheehan.