In August 2011, Shanette Booker’s world changed after the loss of her husband, U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Andre Booker. He died at home.
“I never thought I would become a widow at the age of 30, and never did I think for one moment that I would not be able to grow old with my husband,” she said.
Just six months later, Booker opened her home to several military widows as she hosted the first military widows retreat. She says she wanted a way to help other women who were in her shoes, having difficulty coping with their losses. But in the end, she also helped herself.
“It’s to the point that it’s allowed me to open up my side of pain, and also to share with others in their pain. It’s showed me that I’m not alone in any part of what I go through, and I won’t be,” she said.
The idea for the retreat came after Booker overslept and missed a lunch date with another military widow, Katie Bagosy. Bagosy became worried, since Booker had recently lost her husband, and she posted on Facebook, asking if anyone had heard from Booker. Within 24 hours, more than 500 comments had been posted.
Shortly after, Booker hosted the first retreat at her home in Beaufort – and the Military Widow Memoirs retreat was born.
Since then women have come from all over the country, and all branches of the military. Their spouses have been killed in action, as well as in car accidents or due to health-related issues. About 15 women attend the “slumber party-style” event, during which they offer support to each other, enjoy fun activities and honor the memory of their husbands.
Military Widow Memoirs became a nonprofit in 2016, and Booker says funds come from private and corporate donations, although the wives each pay their own travel expenses. Attendees are chosen by lottery, and news of the event is spread by word of mouth and on social media.
“So many people want to come. It got to a point where we had to limit the numbers because of space issues,” Booker said.
Now in its sixth year, the event is held annually at the end of February. Booker said the timing of the retreat is important.
“That’s the end of the season. All the holidays, where it’s family photos. We’re drained after that,” she said.
Even so, Booker added that one of the events they always include is bringing in a photographer to take photos. It helps them not only to chronicle the event, but to look at how they’ve changed as a group and as individuals.
“Everyone feels pretty. We don’t always feel like ourselves anymore. Photos help us get back into this is who we are,” she said.
This year’s event was held in Statesboro, to give Booker a break from hosting, according to hostess Dana Hubbell, who has attended the event for four years now. Each year’s retreat features events that take the ladies out of their comfort zone, and Hubbell chose to work with the Statesboro Fire Department.
“I chose the SFD as our main activity for this year because Demian (Hubbell’s fiancé) works there. I know that the guys there are really good guys and really fun, and most importantly, it would take us out of our comfort zones. It really forced us to work together and think outside of the box,” Hubbell said.
The 10 ladies who attended the retreat were challenged by dressing out in firefighter turnout gear, going through the Candidate Physical Agility Test, running fire ground training scenarios and going for a ride in the bucket truck.
For these women, and others like them, the loss they’ve each experienced is never far from their minds. Hubbell’s husband was killed in action in Iraq in 2007, the same year they married. Although it’s been 10 years, she said the pain is still real.
“I still need the camaraderie of the ladies who get it. But this follows you. I have dates that I forget, but my heart doesn’t. It helps to be around ladies who get it, who still cry. You still feel it. You still know it. It’s never gone,” she said.
Hubbell said the event is really important to her – and to the other ladies – for those reasons and so much more.
“We chose to bring everyone together for laughs, love and fun,” said Hubbell. “But we also go to honor our fallen. We never forget and they are always a part of us.”