HURON — As a military widow and mother of three who lost their dad, Jennifer Barnard of De Smet knows first-hand what spouses and families go through after getting the awful news.
Shane Barnard was killed in action in 2010, having re-enlisted for a second stint five years earlier because he wanted to help other soldiers.
In 2014, Jennifer was recommended to attend a program for military widows, and was later given the opportunity to become a leader in the group.
“I put my experience and my desire to help people into action,” she said Monday at the Beadle County Republican Women luncheon.
It came after she participated in three years of training.
The organization hosts retreats around the country for families, children, spouses and caregivers of fallen soldiers.
“Last year, they had me lead the first-ever retreat for teenagers who have lost their parents,” she said.
She has also participated in the first retreat for spouses of soldiers who took their own lives. “That is another group that highly needs support.”
Barnard, the Kingsbury County auditor, was widowed when her children were 15, 9 and 8. All are grounded and doing well, she said.
A self-described “military brat who married military,” Barnard said her husband was in the 82nd Airborne in 1994 when they exchanged their vows. A year later, he decided to leave the military. But he had a change of mind in 2005.
“He re-enlisted in January as a medic because he wanted to help what he called the kids that were being deployed,” she said.
After graduating, he was stationed at the Pentagon and not allowed to deploy, even though he wanted to be on the front lines aiding injured soldiers.
“Because he wanted to deploy so badly, he cross-trained to EOD, which is Explosive Ordnance Disposal,” Barnard said. “Twenty-three months after he graduated that school he was killed in action.”
Now a widow, she said she made the decision she wanted to do what she could to help others in her situation, just as her husband wanted to help those on the battlefield.
“In doing these retreats, I have learned that asking for help is the hardest thing to do,” she said.
When a soldier commits suicide, it’s not because of weakness or because they didn’t ask for help, it’s because they couldn’t get the help they needed,” Barnard said.
“And it’s because of what they experience when they’re over there, the things they see and the things that they have to go through which are very, very traumatic and it doesn’t always help to talk about it,” she said.
Barnard works as a volunteer with the EOD Warrior Foundation, based in Florida, which she said is like a close-knit family where everyone knows everyone else. She continues to maintain contact with some of those who served with her husband. “And that’s fantastic, because I still get that support from them,” she said.
“Each retreat that we do is designed specifically for the attendees that are coming, so we don’t have a cookie-cutter type of program,” Barnard said.
At the retreat she led for teenaged boys and girls of fallen soldiers, one of the activities was kayaking.
“We showed them in a kayak on the water that if they are holding each other’s oars they’re connected,” Barnard said.
“And if they were to let go, they’d float away and they’d be in different parts of the wake or different parts of the country or different parts of the world, but they’re still connected because that’s the group that they are a part of,” she said.
The analogy applies to any group – of teens or spouses, families or caregivers – of fallen soldiers, no matter where they live.
Each has his or her own community, she said, “because each job in the military has its own experience and its own special skills.”