Like hundreds of other military widows, Remel Harte of Shelton stepped into the American Lake Community Center looking for answers Friday.
Her husband, Billy, a 21-year Army veteran, died in 1999 of complications stemming from a spinal-cord tumor.
Harte, 47, was curious about whether there were additional military benefits available to her in the eight years since his death.
"I just came to see if there is anything new that I didn't know about," said Harte, formerly of Lacey. "Which there is. A lot."
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Fort Lewis scheduled its first Surviving Spouses Appreciation Day to provide information about benefits spouses might not be aware of or that have changed since they became eligible for them.
"There are a lot of widows who don't know where to turn," said Mary Ferranti, a member of the Nisqually chapter of the Society of Military Widows, one of three support organizations that operated booths at the event. "They lose their husbands, and they don't know what to do. Sometimes, their husbands didn't keep their wives informed, so they're at a loss."
The five-hour event brought together generations of military widows, with spouses who lost husbands during or after the Vietnam and Korean wars mingling with a few who lost partners in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Ferranti, a Tumwater resident whose husband, Paul, died in 1998, said she watched a woman break down Friday. The woman had lost her husband two weeks ago.
"It's hard to see these young kids," Ferranti said. "It's very hard for them, especially if they have children."
Erin Jameson, who lives in University Place, lost her husband, Jessiah, late last year when he drowned in a Tennessee river two days after returning from Iraq. A Bellingham native, Jessiah Jameson was stationed at Fort Campbell, Ky., at the time of his death.
As the number of widows and widowers from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq grows, it's important for the military to provide them up-to-date information about benefits, Jameson said.
"I think we've gotten a lot more support now than three years ago," she added.
There are more than 21,000 surviving spouses of Army and Air Force veterans living in Idaho, Montana, Oregon and Washington, according to the military. A newsletter is sent to them twice a year to keep them abreast of new or changing benefits, said Alex Silva, Fort Lewis' retirement services officer, but it was decided more needed to be done because they still called in with questions.
Representatives from the Army Career and Alumni Program, Madigan Army Medical Center, the U.S. Social Security Administration and the state Department of Veterans Affairs were on hand. Topics included nutrition, medical benefits, grief counseling and substance-abuse treatment.
Military widows were encouraged to fill out a survey to identify other benefits they'd like to receive.
"You can't give someone too much information that they need," Silva said.
Christian Hill covers the city of Lacey and military for The Olympian. He can be reached at 360-754-5427 or firstname.lastname@example.org.