BELLEVILLE, Ill. — Two metro-east military widows found themselves struggling to navigate an often complex and confusing system of federal benefits while grieving the loss of their spouses.
Barbara Wilson, of Cahokia, lost her husband in 2005 and found a widow support group for military spouses based out of Fort Leonard Wood, Mo., that hosted luncheons in St. Louis. Eventually, she agreed to try to start a similar support group on the Illinois side of the river and formed the Scott Air Force Base Widow Support Group.
"It was a big leap for me," she said of starting the group. "I didn't understand why there was no widow support group here, especially with the large number of military and military dependents and retirees."
The group first met at a restaurant off base but Wilson soon figured out the grieving widows weren't opening up and sharing with the fellow widows.
So, Rose Wilson, 67, of Belleville, also a military widow, stepped in and found space on base for the group to meet once a month.
"Having it at Scott seems to have helped them open up and share more," said Barbara Wilson, who is not related to Rose Wilson. "We have guest speakers, we share information and help each other learn about benefits and different things. Most of us would not have known about the benefits. These are the things that the government doesn't tell you, they don't share that information so you have to find out about it by word of mouth from people who have been through it."
The group has been meeting for about a year, Rose Wilson said, and usually have about 12 to 15 members, including a widower, attend.
"We have lunch, we talk, we talk about the ever-changing benefits," Rose Wilson said. "A lot of widows didn't know what benefits they were entitled to and many were in dire financial straits."
The group also hosts guest speakers, but mostly members use the time to share their thoughts and feelings during the grieving process.
"This is for military widows," Barbara Wilson said. "If you are used to the military life, you feel comfortable with people who are familiar with the kind of life you've lived. It's easier to share with someone who understands that life."
Rose Wilson agreed.
"We want people to know there is help and we'd really like to spread the word that this group exists," she said. "When you've been a lifetime military member, you really don't fit in anywhere else because the military lifestyle is so different.
"One of our widows is from Poland and she lost her husband. She is not very fluent in reading and writing and when her husband passed away she was all alone. We are supportive and if anybody is in a bad way and needs to talk, we can help them get over the rough spots. We are there for each other."
The group meets on the second Thursday of the month at noon at the Airman and Family Readiness Center at Scott Air Force Base. The center is in building 1650 at 44 W. Martin St.
Meetings typically last for about two hours, but have been known to go on longer, Rose Wilson said.
"We are still a vital part of the military," she said of military widows. "Our husbands may have been retired, but we are still part of the military. When we are able to help someone else, we honor our husbands and our husbands' service."
Barbara Wilson echoed those sentiments.
"This is just a way of helping someone else with something you've been through," she said. "There are things we've gone through and if I can give back and share what I do know, it's what I want to do. I'm not a counselor, but to be able to listen to one another and help one another is a natural thing to do."