For Jennifer Stratton, the pain of losing her husband to a suicide bomber will never completely heal.
The fact it occurred four years ago today further deepens her appreciation for Memorial Day and the meaning it holds to those who have lost loved ones in the military.
Through the Washington Capitals and their annual Courage Caps campaign, a fundraising effort which has raised more than $300,000, Stratton, who lives in Stafford, Va., with her three children, agreed to share her personal story of love and loss, healing and helping.
In an interview facilitated by the Capitals, Stratton addresses the benefits of TAPS, a nonprofit organization that provides comfort and care for military families grieving the loss of loved ones.
“If you met these parents and children who are connected with TAPS you would see that everyone feels this tremendous sense of appreciation and obligation,” Jennifer said. “I’ve met people who have said, ‘TAPS saved my life.’ And they’re not exaggerating.”
Jennifer and Mark Stratton met in 1998 near Offutt Air Force Base in Bellevue, Neb. She was a high school English teacher working a second job at a furniture store. He was a reconnaissance navigator on an RC-135.
After meeting at the furniture store – he was looking to replace a dishwasher that had overflowed while he was deployed – the couple began dating.
Over the next two years Mark was deployed a number of times and each time he made the same request of Jennifer.
“He asked me to wait for him and be faithful every time he left,” she said, “and I assured him I would.
“We knew right away we were in love and we’d end up together.”
In the summer of 2001 Jennifer and Mark Stratton were married and, six weeks later, watched in horror as terrorists flew planes into the WorldTradeCenter in New York, the Pentagon in Washington and into the ground in Shanksville, Pa.
“We all felt the impact of that day,” Jennifer recalled. “As any Americans, we wanted our country to protect itself and my husband wanted to do that.
“I guess I didn’t realize that years later that one incident would snowball and take my husband’s life later.”
Over the next six years, the Strattons would have three children: a daughter, Delaney, and two sons, Jake and A.J.
The family moved to Stafford when Mark Stratton was assigned Joint Staff at the Pentagon. In October of 2008 he was asked to command a Provincial Reconstruction Team in Panjshir, Afghanistan, where for the next seven months he assisted in the development of roads, schools, medical services and electrical power in the mountainous region near Bagram Airfield.
“It was more of a changing the hearts and minds mission and to improve the Afghans’ way of life,” Jennifer Stratton said, “and they were actually very receptive to that.”
On May 26, 2009, one day after Memorial Day and three months before he was due to return to Washington, Mark Stratton was in a three-vehicle convoy heading back to Bagram Airfield when his vehicle was struck by a vehicle filled with explosives.
Stratton and two others died in the explosion. Stratton was 39 at the time. His wife, Jennifer, was 36, while Delaney was 5, Jake, 4, and A.J., 2.
Jennifer Stratton said she and her children had Skyped with Mark often during his time in Afghanistan and that the couple had spoken the day before his death.
“We had a very nice, beautiful conversation on Memorial Day,” Jennifer said. “I was thankful to have those moments.”
The days and weeks and months that followed her husband’s death were filled with waves of emotion, Jennifer Stratton said. Emotions she now shares with other grieving widows.
“In the first year, it’s really about survival,” she said. “There are some days where it feels like, ‘OK, if I can just make it through this hour; if I can just make it through this day.’
“You’re marking off time. OK, there goes his birthday and we survived that. Here comes our anniversary and we survive that. Thanksgiving, Christmas, all the holidays.
“And then the first Memorial Day, which was the year marker for when he died. We felt, ‘OK we survived.’ The second year it sunk into me that I’m a single parent now and this is forever and what that meant. So the second year in a lot of ways is harder than the first year.
“People are so supportive that first year and you feel blessed to have family and friends around you and people you don’t know sending you cards and letters saying they appreciate and will never forget the sacrifices that have been made. The second year that slows up some and that’s part of the process.”
It was during that first year following her husband’s death that Jennifer was introduced to TAPS by another military widow. First, she received counseling over the phone; then she met with a care group close to her home in Stafford. Her children also participated in TAPS programs designed to help kids cope with the loss of their parents.
“I thought, ‘This is where I need to be, with other people in similar circumstances,” Jennifer said.
TAPS provided seminars on everything from military health benefits and the physical effects of emotional trauma to grief stages for children and the need to keep alive the memories of loved ones.
“We talk about Mark frequently,” Jennifer said. “With these TAPS camps the kids do know it’s OK to cry. It’s OK to ask questions. It’s OK to want to hear a story about Dad. The kids have done a remarkable job of coping and understanding and still loving their dad.”
Two years after losing her husband Jennifer Stratton became a peer mentor through TAPS, helping to guide other military families through the same grieving process she continues to endure.
“It’s emotionally challenging because you’re sharing your own story and it brings back some difficult memories,” she said.
Jennifer said one of the most difficult challenges of losing a loved one is how to celebrate events like birthdays, holidays and the anniversary of their deaths. The Strattons like to bake Mark’s favorite cake or release balloons “up to heaven” on his birthday.
“I try not to put a whole lot of planning into those days because sometimes you wake up and you just can’t,” Jennifer said. You have to be a little selfish and listen to your heart and your body and do what’s best for you. If it’s to be surrounded by other people you do that, and if you need to have a day by yourself then you do that.”
Four years after the death of Mark Stratton, Jennifer says her family still has its moments of sadness. But it is in those moments that strength is built.
“Every once in a while it will be after bedtime and one of the kids will come find me and say, ‘I miss Daddy.’ And we’ll pull out some pictures and I’ll tell them some stories just to calm their little hearts and make them feel better and they can go get a good night’s rest.
“Those are the worst moments as a Mom. You don’t always realize when your children hurt and feel bad about things.”
For more information about TAPS, visit www.taps.org or call the toll-free help line at 1-800-959-TAPS (8277).