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Comfort for military widows of all eras
Gold Star Wives of America forms a local chapter to provide support and information.
By William R. Levesque, Times Staff Writer
Published February 21, 2008
Suzanne Gerstner, left, and Bernadine Suplee light candles as Betty Combee, a member of an Orlando chapter, looks on.
[Carrie Pratt | Times]
RIVERVIEW - Bernadine Suplee said she was in an "amnesia fog" after the 2006 death of her husband, Daniel, from injuries suffered in Afghanistan while serving in the Florida National Guard.
"You don't want to go anywhere," the mother of two said. "You live the death over and over again in your mind. You lose yourself. You go crazy, but you're not crazy."
To get through the grief, Suplee turned to other widows.
Suplee, 49, is one of about 14 women who have joined forces to create a Tampa Bay-area chapter of Gold Star Wives of America, a group that provides military widows a support network and critical information on benefits.
The group, which also plans to fight for legislation to help widows and their children, held its induction ceremony Wednesday in Riverview, where its new president lives.
In a sense, it's an organization nobody would want to join. Membership is confined to wives of those who either die while serving or whose death is related to a service-connected ailment or wound.
Gold Star Wives is open to widows from any era, whether their husband died 63 years ago in World War II or a week ago in Iraq. In fact, the national organization even has a handful of husbands who have lost wives in the service, something almost unheard of during earlier conflicts.
The national Gold Star Wives was formed near the end of World War II when widows banded together to lobby Congress for better benefits for surviving spouses. Today, the group has 10,000 members nationally.
It was named after the traditional gold stars displayed in windows after a family member died in combat.
"Abraham Lincoln said, 'Do not forget the widows and the orphans,'" said Marie Cain, the president of the new chapter, whose territory extends from Brooksville to Naples. "But we are a forgotten breed."
Cain's husband, a Navy veteran of the Vietnam War, died 11 years ago at age 58 of a heart attack. She believes exposure to Agent Orange contributed to his death.
Many widows, Cain said, aren't taking advantage of all the benefits available to them. For example, even some of the new members in her group don't know about property tax breaks given to widows.
"That kind of thing can keep some people from losing their homes," she said.
The Suncoast chapter is the brainchild of Myrtle Tedesco, an 89-year-old Sun City Center resident. Her husband, pilot Lou Verzi, was lost in the Pacific during World War II when his B-25 bomber crashed.
Tedesco, who then lived in New Jersey, became active in Gold Star Wives and eventually served as national president in the late 1940s.
After recently reading a local newspaper article and seeing that the group was still active, she contacted the national headquarters. Tedesco was put in touch with Cain, Suplee and others in Florida who were at-large members of Gold Stars, though without their own chapter.
"We're not looking for new members because that means more killing," Tedesco said. "But we want to reach out to widows and let them know they're not alone. We want to help them."
Tedesco said one of the most-important things she got out of the group in the years after losing her husband was just a band of sympathetic friends who understood the pain.
"And it kept me busy," she said.
The widows who gathered Wednesday talked repeatedly about the sense of isolation they felt after losing their husbands. Though the military bureaucracy offers support, they say it isn't as meaningful as one widow speaking to another.
And often, widows say, the government simply doesn't do a good enough job educating them on the benefits that may be available.
Suplee spoke of the seemingly small things that loom large in the life of a new widow, something only someone who has been through it can really understand.
"The hardest thing to do is to take off that wedding ring," the Lakeland resident said.
As the ceremony was about to open, other Gold Star wives whom she has gotten to know in recent months crowded around her.
"If it wasn't for them, I don't know what I would have done," Suplee said. "I was all alone. Now I consider them my sisters."