Married at 19, Taryn Davis and her husband, Michael, 21, pictured a lifetime of adventures together, starting with a honeymoon in Hawaii. "He loved flying, he loved the water, and he always wanted to take me there," she says. "He had wanted to go skydiving, and I was like, 'No, no, no.'"
But their honeymoon was put on hold: Two days after the high school sweethearts wed, in December 2005, Michael reported to an Army base in Alaska to begin a three-year tour of duty. Davis relocated to their hometown of San Marcos, Texas, to set up the life they'd share when his service ended. Then, 18 months after they had exchanged vows, Michael was killed by a roadside bomb while leading a convoy in Iraq. Davis was a widow at age 21.
Crushed by grief, living away from a military community, Davis felt she had few places to turn. "A lot of mornings I just wanted to lie in bed and cry and pray to God to strike me down with lightning so I can be with Michael," she says. She tried attending a local grief group for those who'd lost longtime spouses to cancer or heart attacks and found many of them were old enough to be her grandmother. "At least you're young," they told her. She didn't see the upside; she knew there had to be more like her-women "just starting their life who had the rug pulled out from underneath them," she says. "I wanted to meet widows who would share with me how they met their husbands, how they fell in love, how they dealt with his deployment-and most importantly, what makes them get up every day and find a reason to live."
Three months after Michael's death, Davis decided to turn to MySpace and the only other military widow she knew. With her husband's $100,000 military death benefits, she bought a video camera and traveled to Georgia in October 2007 to film a conversation with the woman-the first of six interviews in six cities with military widows she met online-and then posted the video on her website americanwidowproject.org. "We're a new generation-our main form of communication with our husbands was Skype or IM," she says. "I wanted that instant connection." Slowly, a virtual community of nearly 600 grieving women came to post their own essays, pictures and videos to support and learn from one another. "They're the stories of the war you don't hear," Davis says. "More than anything, those nights when I really wanted to give up, when it seemed like nothing was going to get any better, I'd think, 'If they can do it, why can't I?' It definitely healed me."
Others felt the same. "I was in a fog for such a long time," says Tara Fuerst, who was 22 when her husband, Staff Sgt. Joseph Fuerst, was killed in 2006 in Afghanistan. After finding the online network in 2008, her fog lifted. "I was able to vent my frustrations and my sadness without feeling like someone was going to tell me, 'Move on' or 'You'll meet someone new,'" says Fuerst, a government contractor at a military command who lives in Brandon, Fla. "These women have saved my life."
Soon Davis decided the women should meet, to hand-hold in person but also enjoy the sort of fun she and her husband had once planned to share. In July 2008 she convened the first of AWP's "getaways"-now up to six a year-intimate road trips, involving a dozen or more women, that have involved surfing, swimming with dolphins and white-water rafting. At one recent gathering, 14 widows met outside Fort Bragg, N.C., for a long weekend of golf and skydiving. (Fund-raising efforts such as a charity golf tournament covered everything but the group's transportation costs.) For Lena Ahearn, falling 13,000 ft. from a plane was more than thrill-seeking; it fulfilled a pledge. An Iraqi, Ahearn, 34, met her husband, Jim, when she was a translator in Baghdad's Green Zone; she moved with him to the U.S., married and gave birth to their daughter Kadi, now 4. Jim was recalled in 2007 and killed that July. "I'm doing it for him, because we both wanted to jump from a plane," she says. As she touched down on earth, she was greeted by outstretched arms and embraced the other women, saying, "I'm so glad I met you guys."
That evening there was celebration and heart-to-heart talks late into the night. "It makes you feel more like yourself, more like you're normal," says Tabbatha Lancaster, 26, who spent two years married to her high school sweetheart before he was killed in Iraq in 2007. Like Danielle Schafer, 30, who lost her husband, Mike, in 2005, many at AWP's gatherings are meeting other widows for the first time. Schafer was anxious about the North Carolina weekend; she'd started a new relationship, and not all her friends understood. The widows did. "I can be happy and talk about my past life and my present life all in one breath," she says. "They're happy for everything I had and everything I have now."
As for Davis, she feels no need to date, but she's spreading her wings more each day: she's already a three-time skydiving veteran. "For all of us, it's scary to laugh again, scary to smile again," she says. "But when I feel most alive, that's when I feel Michael the most. And I feel most alive when I'm with these women."
KNOW A HERO? SEND SUGGESTIONS TO HEROESAMONGUS@PEOPLEMAG.COM