“Please tell me he’s okay … He’s just injured," I panted. "He’s not dead, he can’t be dead. Tell me he’s not dead.”
My friend solemnly nodded her head.
Life after loss is a hell of a thing to conceive, let alone conquer. If your boyfriend, fiancé or spouse was in the military then you understand the roadblocks, questions and thoughts such as, “It wasn’t their time, they were too young, we were supposed to have a family,” and, “How am I supposed to live without them?” I am here to tell you this: You get through it. Day by day, hour by hour, minute by minute, second by second, breath by forced breath.
On May 9, 2019, my fiancé, Marine Corps 1st Lt. Conor McDowell, was killed when the LAV-25 that he was commanding rolled over on top of him during a routine training operation at Camp Pendleton, California. Conor was 24 years old and had been promoted just days before. I found out that the love of my life was dead at 8:34 a.m. the following morning.
In his last seconds alive, 1st Lt. Conor McDowell prepared his Marines and shouted a warning for an impending rollover — helping prevent further injury to the team.
Mere days after finding out that Conor had died, I was driven to the funeral home near Camp Pendleton, California. It was cold and austere, pamphlets for different religions seemingly advertising death were stacked one by one on the entry tables as the faintest glimpse of sunlight peeked through the heavy curtains. I got down on both knees wearing his favorite dress of mine and I pinned his new shiny, silver bars on his blouse ― sleeves still cuffed, draped over a battlefield cross. A few moments later, I touched the cold hands of my lover one last time.
I have attempted to take these lemons and make the sweetest lemonade. It has not been easy, but I have found comfort, peace, understanding and plenty of dark humor through my, “Wid Gang.”
The Wid Gang is comprised of seven fiancées (myself included) who have lost their military partners through combat, training and freak accidents.
It is not a group you wish to be a part of, but it is a sisterhood that is forged in blood and steel.
We have stood with each other, shoulder to shoulder, at Arlington, as we buried the unfortunate newest member’s fiancé.
We have gone “grave hopping,” as we visit each of our lovers in the national cemetery.
We have held virtual cocktail hours during the quarantine where we have talked about the behavior of our fiancés' ex-girlfriends during their funerals, memories of our lovers, and how widowed fiancées (like ourselves) deserve to be treated with more respect and dignity by the military.
In my experience as a widowed fiancée (yes, widowed), you do not receive the same consideration or kindness after your partner dies as a direct family member or spouse, despite going through the same tremendous loss.
In the military, you are either married or you are single, there is no in-between.
I understand this; however, a Marine should have come with my friends to my doorstep to inform me of Conor’s death. A command was given to make that happen, yet there was no one there. Instead, the trauma I had experienced was intensified because I had no details.
I had my friends drive me thirty minutes to Camp Pendleton to meet with Conor’s chain of command, where when I had to throw up due to shock I was told to go to the Porta-John. I had to fight to have my things shipped with Conor’s belongings back across the country because I was not next of kin. I was told at Arlington National Cemetery to “stand back” because I was not “immediate family.”
“Excuse me, sir. I am Conor McDowell’s fiancée. I might not have had the chance to take his last name, but I am his family. I am going to walk beside his parents and there is nothing you can do to stop me from doing so.” And so I did, arm-in-arm with Conor’s mother and father.
My experience is not an isolated incident. I have had many conversations with the Wid Gang and other widowed fiancées who have shared similar ordeals that they have encountered.
As fiancées, we fight for our relationships even after our partner has died. We fight for our love, we fight for minimum courtesies, and we fight for each other.
We crack jokes about our finite lives, we understand the struggles of wondering if there is such a thing as finding a man who will love you after your soulmate dies, and, ultimately, we love each other despite all of our pain.
We are a group of formidable young women, and we know that we can make the sweetest lemonade.
The opinions expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect the views of Marine Corps Times or its staff. If you would like to respond, or have a commentary on another Marine Corps topic, please contact Editor Andrea Scott at firstname.lastname@example.org.