As a relatively new military spouse, I was naïve. I was young, in love, and thought nothing bad would ever happen. Yes, the worst-case scenario was a far away, fleeting thought at times, due to the nature of Dale’s job, however, I would quickly shake those thoughts from my head and focus on the wonderful life we were creating. Recently married, enjoying our first base assignment, celebrating the milestones of undergraduate pilot training, and planning for the life we couldn’t wait to create. That was Dale and me, however, life had other plans for us.
Dale and I met when we were 14 years old, we had our first-hour photography class together during freshman year of high school. I was the first-row student, while Dale preferred the back of the classroom. He was everyone’s friend. He had a way of making you feel like the only person in the room anytime he talked to you. We quickly became inseparable. I was drawn to Dale’s spontaneity and love for life. We continued on to college and learned how to be adults, together. Dale was awarded an ROTC scholarship and made it very well known his ultimate goal was to become a fighter pilot. It came as no surprise to me 4 years later when Dale was awarded a pilot slot after he commissioned. We received orders to Vance Air Force base and were so excited to officially start our lives together. The week before moving to Oklahoma, we snuck off to Las Vegas and got married. It remains one of my favorite memories to this day. The two of us, young, in love, and determined to spend our lives together, flying to arguably the most cliché place to get married. We knew, without a doubt, this was how we wanted our married life together to start, creating memories we would always smile about.
Dale and I spent the next two years battling all that is UPT. The highs, the lows, and all of the changes. We did not know what to expect, as no one really does, but we conquered the journey together. We spent countless hours studying flashcards together until the early hours of the morning. Dinner conversations revolved around pre-flight checks, flight debriefs, and stories of flying through the clouds. Dale loved every minute of flying and I loved the excitement that exuded out of him anytime he talked about his job. Dale was selected to track T-38’s, one step closer to his goal of becoming a fighter pilot. As drop night inched closer, we had a feeling we knew what was going to happen. Dale would prepare me every night for the first assignment instructor pilot (FAIP) assignment he hoped was coming. As Dale stood on the stage to receive his assignment as a T-38 FAIP with the 25th Flying Training Squadron, the look of excitement on his face was unmatched. His excitement for his assignment never faltered, long after the party that night ended. Dale always told me how much he loved sharing his passion for flying. Dale was the perfect “bro”… approachable, outgoing, dependable, and, most importantly, loyal. Loyal to his family, loyal to his fellow instructors, and loyal to his duty to teach his students. In his short 11 months as a FAIP, Dale won numerous awards but was most recently selected as the Crane Award recipient. I had no idea what that truly meant until months later. I learned he had been selected as the top pilot out of 850 Pilot Instructor trainees while at PIT (Pilot Instructor Training). This was nearly unheard of for a Lieutenant to receive. The night of July 20th, 2016, we sat on our couch, watched a movie, and snuggled up with our dogs. Dale turned to me and said, “I will never understand how I got so lucky with the life we get to live. I truly am the luckiest man alive”. It was a moment I will never forget.
July 21st, 2016 started off as any other day but ended as a day I would never forget. Dale’s story is not defined by how he left this world so I will not relive all of the details. However, what happened that day, changed the course of my life, in more ways than I could ever have anticipated. My grief journey started with waiting for Dale’s plane to land on the flight line of Vance. I was supposed to pick him up after his short flight so we could eat dinner with my family. After waiting over an hour, I texted him saying we were going to dinner and to just call when he landed and I would come back to get him. I thought nothing of it at the time, I knew how common delays were by this point. As I was walking into the restaurant a few minutes later, I received a text message asking if I had heard about the plane crash. I immediately fell to the floor, in the middle of a full restaurant, completely hysterical. No one had told me at that point, but to my core, I knew it was Dale. I spent the next two hours, sitting with my family, waiting for my worst fears to be confirmed. I continued to call Dale’s phone, begging for him to pick up, but he never did. Finally, I saw a car pull up, and Dale’s Commander and the base Chaplain got out. Surrounded by my family, through tears in his eyes, Dale’s Commander confirmed that the plane Dale had been in crashed, and he did not survive. At that moment I became a military widow, a Gold Star Spouse, at the age of 24.
Twenty-four hours after Dale’s death, I was taken to the base to meet with military officials to be briefed on what would happen next. This is where I was told the very limited information, I was allowed to know surrounding the details of his death, the timeline for his funeral in the coming days, and the benefits I would now receive as a military widow. Nothing in the world could have prepared me for that meeting. I was still in complete shock that the love of my life was dead, but I was now expected to retain important information and sign stacks of paperwork. As the meeting went on, all I could do was stare at the floor while my family scribbled notes as fast as they could. As the briefing was nearing a close, the officials made sure they had my attention. They explained to me that if I were to remarry before the age of 55, I would forfeit all of the benefits they had just discussed with me. At that moment, I burst into tears. I did not want to think about remarrying, all I wanted was my husband back. As I walked out of the meeting, I was handed a manila envelope with Dale’s wallet, dog tags, and wedding ring inside.
July will be seven years from that horrific day. Every day since, I have made the choice to continue to move forward in my life. The hardest lesson I had to learn was that although Dale’s life was over, mine was not, and I owed it to him to continue to live my life to the fullest, even if it felt devastating to do without him. I learned grief truly is love that has nowhere else to go, we grieve because of the deep love we feel for the person we lost. Living my life to the fullest became my way of honoring the life Dale lived.
Part of moving forward in my life has included allowing myself to be happy again and surrounding myself with people that make me feel joy. One of those people came into my life when I least expected it. Nearly four years after losing Dale, I met someone, and instantly, it felt right. What was supposed to be a casual couple of hours at Top Golf, turned into spending all day together. I always felt blessed to have found love with Dale but to feel those feelings again with someone else made me realize love isn’t linear, it isn’t an all-or-nothing. The love I have for Dale makes the love I have for my new partner even stronger because I am able to see how blessed I truly am to get to experience it again.
Love Lives On Act
But… remember the part about remarrying before the age of 55? This is the situation all Gold Star Spouses are faced with, a situation most people never realize is happening until they are in it. Because of how current federal laws are written, all Gold Star Spouses, and in turn Gold Star Children, forfeit the benefits of their military member should they decide to legally remarry or “hold oneself out to be married” (this simply means there are a list of other rules the surviving spouse must follow or risk losing their benefits such as not cohabitating, sharing a bank account with someone, etc.). The average age for a military widow is 25 years old. Imagine being told at 25 that you could not remarry for over 30 years. This is reality for surviving spouses. The benefits we lose include education benefits, health insurance, the Survivor Benefits Plan, and Dependency and Indemnity Compensation. Military widows are forced to choose between giving up the benefits their deceased spouse earned for them and continuing to move forward in their lives.
Early this year the Love Lives On Act was introduced in the US Senate and House of Representatives. If passed, this bill would eliminate the remarriage penalty and remove antiquated verbiage from the current law. It would allow surviving spouses to retain the benefits given to them, and their children, at the time of their spouses death, no matter how they chose to move forward in their lives.
How You Can Help
The TAPS (Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors) is working with congressional members to raise awareness and support for the bill. As a community of surviving spouses, we have also reached out to our congressional leadership to ask for their support, but we need more help! I share my story to encourage the military spouse community to stand together in support of those who need it. My hope is that by reading Dale and my story, you will feel compelled to get involved and help us create a positive change! Getting involved is easy! You can simply email/send a letter to your elected officials, explaining the proposed legislation, and asking them to sign on as a sponsor! The more awareness around the topic, the more likely we are to make a change!
Phone Script for calling someone in the Senate:
“Hi, My name is [name] and I am a constituent from [city], [state], zip code [zip]. I’m calling to ask the Senator to please co-sponsor the Love Lives On Act, bill number S.1266. Thank you!”
Phone Script for calling someone in the House of Representatives:
“Hi, My name is [name] and I am a constituent from [city], [state], zip code [zip]. I’m calling to ask the Representative to please co-sponsor the Love Lives On Act, bill number H.R.3651. Thank you!”
Bills need to pass both the house and the senate, and we each have 2 senators and 1 representative in the house. This means there are 3 calls you can make to ask your elected officials to support the passage of the Love Lives On Act.
Follow the links to the Senate and House bills to pass the Love Lives On Act. Scroll down to the “Cosponsors” section of each bill to see if your elected officials are supporting the bills
Link to the bill in the Senate: https://www.congress.gov/bill/118th-congress/senate-bill/1266/all-info
Link to the bill in the House of Representatives: https://www.congress.gov/bill/118th-congress/house-bill/3651/all-info
If your senators/representatives are not on the list of cosponsors, a great way to motivate them to support the bill is to give them a call and ask them to cosponsor it!
Find the phone numbers for your Senators and your Representative here by entering your address at this link: https://www.congress.gov/members/find-your-member
The phone numbers will likely be for their DC office but they also have local offices. You may need to do additional digging on their individual websites to find those phone numbers if you would like to contact them there
When calling your senators, reference the senate bill # (S.1266). When calling your representative, reference the house bill # (H.R.3651).
If you really want to make an impact, aim to call every day until your senators and/or representative officially signs on as a cosponsor! The legislative aids that take calls at your elected officials’ offices keep track of the issues their constituents call about. Call volume and persistence matters – the squeaky wheel gets the grease. After they have signed on as a cosponsor, it’s a great idea to call and thank them!
What does it mean to be a Cosponsor?
This means your senator/representative is officially signing on as a supporter of the bill
Can I email instead?
Calling is better than sending an email but an email is better than nothing. Calling makes more of an impact because it shows your elected official how important the issue is to you.
Can I call on weekends?
No, call on weekdays when their offices are open.
Do I have to follow the script?
Nope! The script is a suggestion to help you if you’re not sure what to say. Feel free to customize what you say as you wish! Just be sure to include your name, location/zip so they know you are a constituent, and make note of the bill name and number.
What if my senator/representative is already a cosponsor?
You can still call them. Thank them for supporting the bill, and ask them to do what they can to push for passage. Until something is law, there is still more they can do.
Being a Gold Star Spouse is a “club” no one wants to be in. We are not here by choice, we are here because the love we have for our spouse lives on long after they are gone. Our spouses all joined the military with the understanding that if something happened to them, the loved ones they left behind would be taken care of with the benefits earned by their service to our country. Support for this bill validates the sacrifices of all Gold Star Families but, more importantly, represents the honor and respect our military members who died serving our country deserve.
I am a USAF Gold Star Spouse, dog mom, and Registered Nurse. My passion is to help people through very difficult moments in life, which is why I work in the Emergency Department. My family and I currently run the Dale Shillington Memorial Scholarship at the High School we both attended. This scholarship is awarded to a graduating senior, with preference given to someone joining the military, who has similar passions and aspirations as Dale. Dale and I were stationed at Vance Air Force Base for 3 years before I moved back home to Kansas City, Missouri, where I grew up.