How Col. Jeanette McMahon, Retired Military Widow, Does It

The New York Times

Col. Jeanette McMahon, retired, was widowed when her husband was killed in an airplane accident in Afghanistan. She has three sons. At the time of her husband’s death, one was in high school, one in middle school and one in elementary school. Now, one son has graduated from college, one is attending college and one is in high school. Here’s how she does it, and how it has become easier over the years.

Today was a little bit of an unusual day because I played in a golf scramble. I got up at 6:30 to spend time with my 14-year-old. He is old enough to get himself off to school, but I like to be around when he does. It’s like our version of parallel play. Or he is trying to look at iPad and YouTube videos, and I’m telling him to get a move on.

The bus comes and picks him up after breakfast. Usually after breakfast I would go running, but yesterday I went to a golf scramble. It’s kind of funny how that came about. My West Point ring was stolen, and about a month later, I found a fax in my home fax machine asking: Are you Jeanette Regan McMahon? If so, call Barry Fixler. And Barry turned out to be this former marine, Vietnam veteran, who wrote a book, “Semper Cool,” and runs his family jewelry business. Someone must have pawned the ring, and he saw it and knew what it meant. He has a foundation trying to raise money for men and women who were wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the scramble was a fund-raiser.

Mike and I were both in the Army. After I left West Point, I went to field artillery school for officer basic training and to flight school. I learned to fly Chinooks, and that’s what I did. He was always very supportive of my career, but we had to strike a balance, and be reasonable about our assignment requests. Fifteen years later we were the only ones who managed to have children and stay together, so I guess we managed all right.

When he was killed, it was so overwhelming. We totally shared everything: child care, cooking. We split some things, like he did taxes, but mostly it was both of us, and then it was just me.

I moved us to West Point and had my last assignment in the Army there, as the special assistant to the superintendent for human relations and diversity, and then I retired. Mike was my partner, my best friend, my co-parent. I was just struggling to keep up with all of the things I needed to do: laundry, dinner, the basics. And keeping up with all the paperwork, the bills and the taxes. The boys were struggling in some ways. They were all having behavior issues.

Financially, I was doing fairly well. I had a pension, and I get some benefits that aren’t taxed. I’m probably an unusual war widow; my husband was more senior, he was in his 40s, we had older children, we had dual careers and he invested. We had put money away for college. I wasn’t thinking about applying for help; I thought we would make it work somehow.

Then, Gen. David Petraeus was scheduled to be the speaker at my oldest son’s high school graduation. We had moved so much, and Mike, my son, never much liked school, he had A.D.H.D. and he was older than most of other children. It had been hard.

I used to write speeches, and I emailed the speechwriter. I just said, look, academically he is probably the second to last student, but if the general felt like acknowledging his persistence in the context of his father it would mean a lot to him.

And he did. Afterward, we were introduced, and his wife was telling me about the Children of Fallen Patriots Foundation, and how it provides college scholarships to children who have lost a parent to combat.

I was just listening. I said, oh, that’s great, so many people really need help. We’ll be O.K., though. And General Petraeus said that the point is not how much you have or how much you put away; we feel that we as a country owe this to you. “Colonel, I’m giving you an order,” he said. “I want you to sign those boys up for those scholarships.”

I did. And that is one of the things that has really helped make things easier now. They were so nice, and so kind and empathetic, and they understood. They helped make it all easier, not just the financial part. Some things — you almost need a degree to manage the benefits. I’m a smart person. But it’s complicated. And the medical stuff has been another challenge. Families who have been through trauma have more medical issues. We just do. So that’s a challenge in itself, and then the benefit paperwork — it becomes a full-time job. The Children of Fallen Patriots people aren’t like that. They just help.

Now, things are easier. It’s just me and Ricky (my youngest) at home except during the summer, and now my oldest won’t come home in the summer either. He has a degree in automotive tech, and he works for a dealership in Connecticut. He got the job on his own, and he has kept it. I’m so proud of him. My middle son just transferred colleges. It’s hard having him farther away, but we’ll see him.

And Ricky’s in 10th grade. He is really transitioning to be more independent. He is gone most days until 5:30, and I am finally finding myself with more time on my hands. For so long, I had three boys going through teenagerhood. Just the daily things, feeding them, helping them make decisions with college, disciplining them (mine were very social, they’re just like their dad) that was such a big part of my life.

I really worked hard to strengthen our relationships, make sure they knew there was stability at home. Now I’m thinking of going back to work. I haven’t decided what I want to do. I’m tied to this area. I want to let Ricky graduate, so I have three years. I’m definitely going to get out there.

Last night was one of the few times I let Ricky come in on his own. I left dinner in the fridge. We usually sit at the table together, spend a good half-hour and watch a little TV. He does homework. I do bills. The other day he grabbed a tennis racket and we went out in the driveway. We do a lot of driveway sports. We go out there, spend some time together. Last night we just watched TV.

Tomorrow we’ll get up and do it all over.

How I Do It is an occasional series dedicated to telling the stories of how parents get through the long days and the short years. For more How I Do It, read: Terran Lyons, McDonald’s Crew Trainer, on Raising 2 on the Minimum Wage; How Tracy Mack-Askew, Chevrolet Vehicle Line Manager, Does It; How Kai Ryssdal, Radio Host, Does It and How Nicole Zeitzer Johnson, Communications Director and Special Needs Parent, Does It.