The Impact of Active Duty Deaths on Survivors

How does it feel to lose a family member serving their country?

After more than 13 years of war and nearly 7,000 casualties, it's a feeling that many Americans -- including myself, unfortunately -- are familiar with.

Throughout my advocacy work in Washington, D.C., and particularly on Capitol Hill, I am often asked for statistics on families of the fallen -- and most particularly war widows and widowers. Unfortunately, there is little to no data on the families of the fallen, how many of us there are and how we handle and cope with grief.

But all of that is going to change soon with the National Military Family Bereavement Study, "the first large scientific study of the impact of a U.S. service member death on surviving family members." The federally funded study, conducted by the Center for the Study of Traumatic Stress at the Maryland-based Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences, is open to the families of service members who died on active duty since September 11, 2001, no matter the cause of death.

I was happy to participate in the bereavement study so that policies and communities will be better informed in caring for and counseling family members of the fallen as we grieve and try to heal.

After my husband, SPC Christopher Horton, was killed in Afghanistan in 2011, I felt the effects of the civilian-military divide like peroxide on a fresh wound. It stung, it hurt, and it was an unexpected consequence of losing a loved one to a war that most Americans forget we are even fighting.

Veterans continue to deploy even after the wars have "ended" and return home to an America that doesn't really understand what they have been through, or the fact that the evil they have fought is very real. Families cry and scream themselves to sleep at the notion that their loved one was killed by bullets and bombs or from the effects of burn pits or other terrible deaths.

Just as veterans have a tough time reintegrating into society, families of the fallen must learn to be a part of a country that doesn't know how to comprehend or swallow the fact that people die in war, and people die training for war. It can be hard to find the right words to comfort anyone who's lost a family member, but I'll always remember what my friend Karla told me at Chris's visitation.

Karla had always been a hero of mine for championing veteran's advocacy. After nearly two weeks of many people telling me they knew what I was going through, that God would bring me a new husband soon, and that I should've known this was coming, she walked in, looked me in the eyes as hers glazed over, and she told me: "Jane, no one will ever understand what you are going through. There is nothing like a war death." I'll never forget that -- and it was true.

As over 2,000 families have participated in The National Bereavement Study, many wait anxiously as the study continues and are eager to see the results so the nation can use them to care for those who have been through the unthinkable. The study will be an incredible tool to measure how the Department of Defense and U.S. military can best offer grief and bereavement support to us families, and gather more information on our overall demographic. It is also important to know that even though it is easy to paint all grieving families of deceased military members with the same brush, we are very different and have very different experiences due to the variety of causes of death of service members.

As America turns her eyes to its 2.6 million veterans who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan, let us not forget the families who are left behind to pick up the pieces after their blue star banner hanging in their window turns to gold. There are brothers and sisters who need counseling, children who don't understand, and mothers, fathers, husbands and wives who don't know how to cope. War is ugly, and it seems that we don't always remember that not every story has a happy ending.

The cost of those we have lost is so great, and our treasures that we as a nation have sacrificed is so high. If we as Americans could grasp how many have given their tomorrows for our todays, we would be a forever-changed people. Never forget them -- because they didn't forget us -- and they trusted that we wouldn't forget those they loved. President Lincoln once charged the American people: "let us strive on to... bind up the nation's wounds," and also, "to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan."