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Washington Warrior Widows watches over military widows

Reconnecting widows and their children with support and guidance

Washington Warrior Widows, from left, Caitlin Hatchel, Danielle Villanueva, Stephanie Groepper and Amanda Milledge at the Auburn Veterans Day parade last year. The children in the front are Clarissa Groepper, Lexi Knopp and Bridget Knopp. Photo courtesy A

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It is a visitor you never want to have as a military spouse. An innocent knock at the door becomes a nightmare when you learn that the caller is a Casualty Assistance Officer (CAO) who has come to tell you that your loved one has died in service to his or her country. Military spouses know their husbands and wives are doing dangerous jobs, yet they must put their worries aside and do their best to have a normal life.

That one knock at the door, however, changes everything.

Military widows are a unique group. Not only has their loved one died, but their entire way of life also changes. They must make important decisions while in the fog of grief, and if they live on base, they will eventually need to relocate. So not only do they lose a spouse, but they also often lose a sense of community.

Stephanie Groepper was just 22 and married only two years when her husband, Spec. Chad Groepper, was killed in Iraq in 2008.

"When you lose your spouse, it's like, 'what do we do?'" said Groepper, president of Washington Warrior Widows, a new nonprofit organization in the Joint Base Lewis-McChord area. "The Army says they'll always be there for you, but in my case, my husband's old unit dissolved and what was left moved to Colorado. It was like I didn't have an Army family anymore."

To make things worse, Groepper went through two CAOs and eventually had to navigate the surviving spouse system alone.

"There were so many casualties at the time, the CAOs weren't fully trained and were thrown in there," she said. "So my experience was not the best. I do not want anyone else to have to go through what I went through."

Groepper learned how to file claims and navigate the system, and in 2011 she became a Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS) mentor. One of her mentees "felt really disconnected from the support that was offered," she recalled. "(The military) offers you all this support and they say 'we'll always be there for you,' but a lot of us weren't feeling that."

To help connect widows and their children and offer support and guidance, Groepper started the Washington Warrior Widows group last summer. There are currently 44 members throughout the state, with several in the JBLM area.

"We understand," Groepper said. "We've been there. We know what other widows need. So we support the newer widows, help them navigate the system and streamline everything."

The group, which stays connected through its website and public and secret Facebook pages, offers networking, assistance and a place to turn for widows (and widowers) who may feel disconnected from their former military way of life.

"We want them to know they're not alone," Groepper said. "Especially the children. My daughter was only four months old when my husband was killed, so this is the only way of life she has known."

The families come together at events like luncheons, blueberry picking, bowling, picnics, veteran's parades and more.

"The kids don't have to explain that their dad passed away," she said. "These kids know. It's an instant bond and connection. It's really amazing to see. ... They're like siblings almost. They let them know that it's alright."

The next outing is a family skating event in early February.

Washington Warrior Widows also offers volunteer services for things like household maintenance and car care. "Anything you need, we'll find volunteers for it," Groepper said. "We've done everything from landscaping and moving to getting a car running again."

Moreover, the group embraces widows and widowers from all branches and all ranks, whether they are a new widow or it is been many years.

"We don't discriminate," Groepper said. "We've noticed with a lot of organizations that there is a lot of red tape. It has to be Post 9/11 and can't be a suicide. We embrace everyone, including fiancées.  We've all had that military lifestyle, and we've all lost someone.

"We're very much a sisterhood," she continued. "We rely on each other. It's a group of friends who have been there and understand your unique situation."

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