Artis Henderson never imagined she'd end up a military wife. She had dreams of becoming a writer and traveling the world; settling down with a conservative, church-going Army pilot wasn't the life she'd planned for herself.
But she fell in love with Miles Henderson and she followed him to Army bases in small towns where she struggled to fit into military life and culture. Then, in 2006, her new husband deployed to Iraq and was killed just months later in an Apache helicopter crash.
In her memoir, Henderson describes her new life as — in official military terms — an Unremarried Widow. "Military wives are so tough," she tells NPR's Rachel Martin about the community of women she joined. "I mean, they have to be."
On finding her place in the community of military wives — but not right away
I was maybe in a different place in my life. I was a little bit younger. I didn't have kids. ... I didn't have a lot in common with them, not at that point. ... I was so resistant to that idea of, yes, we these military wives, we would be this strong-knit community. And I just couldn't understand that.
I thought that my friends would be outside the military. That I would make, you know, friends from work, but I kind of saw over time that with a military lifestyle that those are your friends. That is your support network. And the soldiers are gone so often that the community becomes the other wives, and sometimes that's all you have.
On a moment of revelation during a "getting-to-know-you" game with new friends
The idea was that we were ... supposed to write a question and put it into this jar and then they would ask the question to the group and everybody would answer. It was kind of supposed to be an icebreaker, and you know, I didn't know what to ask. These were women I knew kind of professionally and casually, but ... they weren't my best friends. So I didn't know what to ask this group of women.
And so, as the jar was kind of making its way around the circle, I wrote the thing that I thought about all the time, which was: "How do you make a life with someone — someone you love more than anyone else in world — but living that life means giving up what you had planned for yourself?" ... It was funny because no one really seemed to care. It didn't seem like it was the type of question that other people worried about.
On feeling alone in her desire to think beyond the military
I felt like everyone else in this community I was in was very good at just focusing on ... the military. You focus on getting through training, you focus on getting through the deployment. I wanted to think about other things — not necessarily bigger things, but just different things.
... I was worried about losing myself. I was worried about a career. I was worried about how to be a woman apart from my husband and his status in the military. And now it's ironic, of course, because now my whole life has been defined by this.
On the letter Miles wrote for her to open in the event of his death
He wrote what military widows, we call it a goodbye letter. It's a letter that you only read if the worst has happened. Not every soldier writes one, but Miles, he did write one for me. He put the date on it, and it was still really early in the deployment when he wrote it. ... I like to think that Miles wrote me mine because ... of his character and his goodness, and not because he was scared.
On how she found out that Miles had been killed
I had come home from work. In hindsight I had this odd feeling that something was off. Like when I pulled in the garage, there were no lights on, and my mom would always leave the lights on for me. I went upstairs, and I put my key in the lock, and the lock was unlocked and that — we always have the door locked.
So something felt odd, and I pushed the door open and my mom was in the living room — and she was sitting in the middle of the living room, which made no sense — and there was a soldier standing behind her and another one next to him. And as soon as I saw them, I knew. But it felt like such a betrayal because that's not how it's supposed to happen. They're supposed to knock on your door, but they were already there.
On what she wants to tell people about the military experience and about Miles
There's a lot I wanted to say. Yes, about the military community, certainly, and the power of it and the resiliency of its members, especially military wives. And I think, more than anything, I just wanted people to feel how I felt, both in loving him and in his death.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Artis Henderson never imagined she'd end up a military wife. She had dreams of becoming a writer and traveling around the world. Settling down with a conservative church-going Army pilot who was never anything she'd imagined for herself. But that is what happened. Henderson struggled to fit into military life and culture, but it was a sacrifice she was willing to make. Then in 2006, weeks after their wedding, her husband Miles was killed in Iraq.
I spoke recently with Artis Henderson about her new memoir, an "Unremarried Widow."
ARTIS HENDERSON: He wasn't what I thought was my type.
HENDERSON: He was very conservative. But I guess it turned out he was exactly my type in the end.
MARTIN: You two obviously, you hit it off and you start a serious relationship. You commit to each other. And then you move immediately because Miles is transferred to another base; he's getting ready to deploy to Iraq. And you move to Texas. Were you a little apprehensive about making that move? Or did you just say, OK, this is what life with this guy is going to be like?
HENDERSON: I was very apprehensive. You know, we had spent about six months at Fort Bragg in North Carolina and that was really - it was tough for me. It was tough to find a job. It was tough to make friends. And I had just kind of settled in, you know, I had just found a job. I had just started making a group of friends and then it was time to move. And that's part of military life and maybe eventually I would've gotten used to it. But gosh, that early on, it was still - it was a shock.
MARTIN: So, you go to Texas where you're taken into this group of military spouses. Even though you're not married at the time but you're considered part of that group. What were your first impressions?
HENDERSON: It was a tough group of women. Military wives are so tough. I mean they have to be. But I was maybe in a different place in my life. I was a little bit younger. I didn't have kids. We weren't married. So this sort of things that we might talk about, I didn't have a lot in common with them, not at that point.
MARTIN: Why was that just assumed that, yes, of course, you will come and you will be part of our group, and that's just to be expected?
HENDERSON: That's something I didn't actually realize until, really until he deployed or maybe just before you deployed. Because, you know, I was so resistant to that idea that of, yes, that we, these military wives, we would be this strong-knit community. And I just couldn't understand that. You know, I thought that my friends would be outside the military. That I would make, you know, friends from work. But I kind of saw over time that with a military lifestyle that those are your friends. That is your support network. And the soldiers are gone so often that the community becomes the other wives. And sometimes that's all you have.
MARTIN: After her husband deployed to Iraq, Artis moved back to Florida to live with her mom. That's where she was when she found out Miles had died along with his unit commander when their Apache helicopter went down in a dust storm.
A lot of people know that when a member of the military dies, uniformed officials visit the home to relay that news. You write about this in the book. Can you recount that scene? You were living with your mom at the time in Florida?
HENDERSON: That's right. We had moved me home when he deployed. I had come home from work. In hindsight, I had this odd feeling that something was off. Like, when I pulled in the garage there were no lights on - and my mom would always leave the lights on for me. I went upstairs and I put my key in the lock and the lock was unlocked, and that we always have the door locked. And I pushed the door open and my mom was in the living room.
And she was sitting in the middle of the living room, which made no sense. And there was this soldier standing behind her and another one next to him. And as soon as I saw them I knew. But it felt like such a betrayal because that's not how it's supposed to happen. They're supposed to knock on your door...
(SOUNDBITE OF WEEPING)
HENDERSON: ...but they were already there.
MARTIN: How did you see yourself fitting into the military community after Miles' death? What could it be to you?
HENDERSON: I'm so proud to be part of this community. I regret that it took losing him to realize that. The military widows I've met, some of my best friends are military widows. I just have so much respect for them.
MARTIN: You longed for another kind of life in some ways when you were with Miles. Are you living that now?
HENDERSON: In a way I am. I've done a lot of the things that I talked about doing when we were together. And I think it's just, after he died, I just...
HENDERSON: ...I wouldn't let anything stop me.
MARTIN: Artis Henderson. Her new memoir is called "Un-Remarried Widow." She joined us from our studios in New York. Artis, thanks so much for talking with us and sharing your story.
HENDERSON: Thank you for having me.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.