During his 21 years as a Navy SEAL, Ted Fitz-Henry was versed in special reconnaissance, unconventional warfare and counter-terrorism. But his greatest mission, according to his wife Michelle, was capturing her heart.
Ted, a soft-spoken medic, met his future spouse while he was in Illinois taking courses to become a paramedic. Michelle was an Air Force medic also taking the course. After a year of courtship, Ted completed his amorous coup and married Michelle in 1999.
“I waited until I was 38 to get married hoping to find the perfect guy,” Michelle Fitz-Henry said. “I found the perfect guy. With us both in the military, we had a lot in common.”
The two bought a house together in Forest Park. Michelle joined the fire department in Oak Park and Ted continued his military training. Then, on June 15, 2004, Ted was killed during a training exercise in Nevada. He had just returned from a stint in Iraq and was scheduled for a deployment to the Middle East.
While doing a rough-terrain vehicle exercise in Nevada, Ted was navigating. The driver unexpectedly struck a boulder, the vehicle flipped and Ted Fitz-Henry, 41, was killed.
“The last time I saw him was at an airport,” Michelle said. “We had bought our house and he was going to retire.”
Coping with her grief, Michelle has leaned on family and friends. She’s found additional support, too, from the Gold Star Wives of America. While attending a Memorial Day event in Washington D.C., Michelle first learned of the nationwide nonprofit that serves military widows. Gold Star Wives has more than 11,000 members and 60 active chapters nationwide.
On Aug. 16 Michelle hosted a gathering for area members at the Thomas Avenue home she purchased with her husband. Sharing their connection of loss, the women got to know one another and exchange information about available benefits for widows of veterans.
Maria Olczyk, a member of the Gold Star Wives, said the organization, and meetings like the one held at Michelle’s home, are truly beneficial.
“Gold Star Wives has been extremely helpful to me,” Olczyk said. “We are all wives. Just knowing that somebody cares and somebody is out there just like me is very reassuring.”
Olczyk lost her husband, Sgt. Steven Olczyk, 27 years ago in an accident that made news headlines. After completing his Army tour in Germany, the sergeant later returned to the military as an Air Force reservist. While flying to Chicago from a training mission, the C-130 aircraft carrying Olczyk and other military personnel developed a problem. A refueling tanker was sent to help the plane in distress, but an explosion killed everybody on board.
“It was a horrible night,” Olczyk said with tears in her eyes. “The coffins were closed and no one was able to say goodbye.”
Elizabeth Linden recounted the time her husband Preston Linden enlisted. The Louisiana natives married soon after Preston finished basic training. Two days after the birth of their child, Elizabeth Linden lost her husband.
“Being so young, it was very hard to believe,” Linden, an Oak Park resident, said. “Thank God my mother-in-law was so helpful. It took me awhile to fully realize my husband was killed.
“I got involved with the Gold Star Wives because it’s something I needed to do. The ladies in this organization can really help each other.”
Galvanized by a national outreach effort and new conflicts putting soldiers in harm’s way, Gold Star Wives has experienced a boost in membership this year with 2,500 widows, many from the Vietnam era. Roughly 250 widows of Iraq veterans have also joined. Locally, the Chicago Chapter has 125 members.
Fitz-Henry is on the Government Relations Committee for the organization. Her legislative involvement stemmed from her own disappointment in what she said is a lack of benefits for survivors.
“I served for 20 years and I had no idea how bad the benefits are for widows,” she said. “I never got the briefing, and that angered me. My husband deployed and I was deployable and why did I not know of these paltry benefits? So, I saw some legislation and I got on the phone with my senators and congressmen and pushed for support of a bill.”
With ubiquitous tears, hugs and laughs exchanged during the Saturday gathering, Fitz-Henry said the visceral “meet and greet” served its purpose.
“We have a lot of widows in the area and we’re just not connecting,” Fitz-Henry said. “We want people to know that we are here to be supportive of each other, whether it’s emotionally or providing information about benefits.”