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The Road to Recovery: Military Widows

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After their husbands were killed in Iraq, these wives took up running -- and found that it helped heal their grief in a way nothing else could.

Gold Star Wives

It's Sunday morning, 8 a.m., and the streets of Arlington, Virginia, are packed: Some 24,000 runners are coiled around the Pentagon, ready to race in the Annual Army Ten-Miler, a yearly event that attracts participants from all over the world. In the thick of the roaring "hooah" chants of the soldiers stand two very special racers, Jen Harting, 33, and Dawn Cash, 35. The women represent a team called Gold Star Wives of America, a national group made up of thousands of military widows and widowers. The journey that brought Jen and Dawn to the starting line is far more difficult than the race course ahead. And the thing that will propel them to the finish line is a combination of hard work, hope, and love for their husbands.

A Perfect Match

Jen met Army Captain Jay Harting in June 1999, at the Have a Nice Day Cafe, in Nashville, Tennessee. Her evening began as a typical night out with friends. "I saw this guy's bald head bobbing in the middle of a crowd of people on the dance floor, and I thought, What a dork!" laughs Jen, who had been enlisted in the Air National Guard. But when the 6'2", 225-pound Jay eased over to say hello politely, she ate her words. Jen was instantly drawn to his understated confidence, his tender smile as broad as his shoulders and his ambition. Not only did the 22-year-old already own a home and a truck, but he was also a West Point grad. During their swift courtship, Jen recalls, he would write "the most beautiful, poetic love letters. I found it very attractive." When he returned home from a six-month mission in Egypt, they virtually sprinted to the altar on July 7, 2001.

Part of the couple's postnuptial five-year plan was to start conceiving their three children ASAP. Mission accomplished: Within a month, Jen was in a family way. Adeline -- their first -- was born in 2002. After Ralph's birth, in 2004, Jen and Jay ran their second 5K together (they had completed their first during their engagement), and they talked about attempting a triathlon. The bionic twosome shopped for bikes, and he weight-trained in the garage of their home, with Metallica blasting. "I can remember Jay would be out there in 100-degree weather, cranking out the reps," says Jen. "When you see that, it inspires you."

Their Ironman tag-team dreams were put on hold when they received two pieces of life-altering news: Jay had been selected as an instructor at West Point, and the 100-soldier unit, Echo Troop, that he commanded was being sent to Iraq. Jay had the option to accept either assignment. When he chose to lead his platoon into war rather than to return to his alma mater, "I supported his decision wholeheartedly," says Jen. "You don't play soldier and then not go. And he had been training those men for over two years. He wasn't comfortable leaving them under someone else's command." In the months before Jay left, "I convinced myself that his chances of dying over there were less likely than they were with him driving down the freeway," she says. The couple then conceived their third and final child, Warren. Jay would be gone for a year; by the time he returned home, Jen would have had the baby and would be ready to refocus on their athletic training.

But they never competed together again. On April 29, 2005, Jay was killed by a car bomb during a routine check, just weeks before he was planning to return home early, for his son's birth. Jen was devastated -- but determined to move forward. "So many people came out to honor Jay at his funeral," she says. "And it just made me think, I've been dealt this hand. What am I going to do with it? How am I going to make my husband and children proud? There was no other option for me than to start running. I wanted to show Jay how much I loved him by doing something he loved."

Running for Life

So Jen picked up where she and Jay had left off. About five weeks after his memorial service and Warren's birth, she began training for her first event, the West Point Triathlon. "I didn't want my grief to immobilize me," she says. "It felt good to move my body and lose some baby weight." Running also served as an escape mechanism -- from her children, from the dozens of pot roasts brought over by friends and family, from the living-room carpet on which she and Jay had once kissed and tickled each other silly. And it allowed her to regain a sense of control. "I could have a good run and blast the heavy metal Jay used to play, and it made me feel so close to him," Jen says. "Some of the songs were about being alive. And I started to think, Oh my God, I'm alive. I'm alive!" After completing the race's 800-meter swim, 25K bike ride, and a 5K run, Jen had never felt more connected to her fallen hero, or more at peace with herself. "Every step I take in my run, every lap I swim, every revolution on my bike brings me closer to him. On our wedding bands, we inscribed the phrase, 'Love bears it out, even to the edge of doom.' This is what I was meant to do."

To spread her newfound joy, Jen took on another project: corralling other Gold Star Wives to run in the 2005 Army Ten-Miler. "There were a lot of postings on the message boards like 'I can't get over this. What am I going to do with my life?' And I wanted the other ladies to experience what I felt -- how with every bead of sweat I dropped, I thought of Jay sweltering in Iraq; how I was keeping my husband's legacy alive and creating my own in the process. I'd sign off my postings, 'Run for their lives, and yours.'"

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