As the head of the Family Readiness Group for her husband’s platoon at Fort Drum, New York, Jennifer Hansen was the first to start getting phone calls from distraught family members one early December night in 2009. First, it was the wife of a soldier in the platoon, and then the mother of another. Something had happened. The guys were hurt. She comforted them both, then went back to bed.
“I don’t know why. To this day I cannot tell you,” Hansen said. “Those guys were never without Dennis, so obviously if the two of them are hurt, Dennis is hurt. But it didn’t register with me.”
Hansen’s phone rang at 8 the next morning while she was nursing her 8-month-old son, Michael. Her husband, Staff Sergeant Dennis Hansen, usually called from Afghanistan around that time. Jennifer and Dennis had met on a blind date six years earlier, and by the end of that night, he told her, “I’m gonna marry you one day, you know that, right?” He had served for more than eight years in the U.S. Marine Corps infantry before joining the U.S. Army, and this wasn’t Dennis’ first deployment.
But when Hansen answered the phone that morning, it wasn’t her husband’s voice on the line — it was the new commanding officer of the 10th Mountain Division. He informed her that Dennis had been injured in an IED attack.
Dennis would have been returning from Logar province in nine days. “He’d actually given his ticket away to another platoon sergeant so he could get home for Thanksgiving,” said Hansen. “He was the senior enlisted NCO in his company. A man’s never done with their duties until all his men are home.” But instead of her husband coming home, Hansen was the one flying overseas. In Landstuhl, Germany, Dennis was dying of injuries sustained while standing in the door of a remotely detonated building with 350 pounds of explosives in the walls.
“I got there just in time, right before he stopped having brain activity,” Hansen said. “He never spoke to me, his eyes never really opened, but he did squeeze my hand once. And I waited and waited to see if something would change.”
When it became clear that her husband would not wake up, she found some comfort in the fact that he was able to donate his organs.
“Surprisingly, after 15 years of smoking a pack a day, he managed to donate his lungs,” she said with a laugh. “Dennis spent his whole life rescuing people — that’s who he was, so who am I to not let him do that in death? He’s walking around, parts of him, all over Europe. They’re still viable organs and people are alive today, and I guess I’m grateful for that.”
Instead of returning to Fort Drum, where she had been a schoolteacher before taking maternity leave, she stayed with family in Rochester, New York.
“It’s been very difficult to be away from the military lifestyle,” Hansen said. “It doesn’t get easier as the years go on. We travel to see our military friends all the time because it’s where we feel safe and comfortable.
“I keep my distance from getting close with people in the community, just because we don’t have anything in common on a deeper level. You’re complaining to me about how your husband doesn’t take the garbage out. Well, for five and a half years of my life, if I didn’t take the garbage out, it didn’t get done. If I didn’t mow my own lawn, it wasn’t mowed.”
In addition to the disconnect she’s felt within the nonmilitary community, Hansen has been equally unimpressed with the support she’s received in western New York.
“The veteran community here is very strong, but they have zero regard for the Gold Star families,” she said. “They want us to come to their banquets so they can earn money, or they want us to come there so they can say sorry to me. I don’t want you to apologize to me. I feel bad for you because you didn’t know my amazing husband.”
Instead, Hansen has become closely involved with a national organization called the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS). “It is open to any survivor, at any walk in their life and grieving process,” Hansen explained. “It’s wonderful because you can learn perspectives of grieving that are so different from yours. Whenever you get the chance to talk to somebody who celebrates the life they knew once upon a time, it just is a revival of your own spirit.”
As a peer mentor with TAPS, Hansen recently started a region-specific location for the organization. “You find that a lot of time widows of all ages feel very disconnected and you don’t know what is here and available to you,” Hansen said. “So I started this regional thing because it’s so valuable to be able to provide that and give people peace of mind.”
Beyond working with TAPS, she uses her master’s degree in literacy education to teach English online and also works as a teaching assistant and lunch monitor at her son’s school. Michael, now 10, never knew his father.
“He’s had so many experiences that are outside the norm,” Hansen said. “It’s made him a completely different kid than I think he would have been. He sees people and he sees things that many wouldn’t. I think that comes from his understanding that the future is unknown and that can be scary and overwhelming sometimes.”
Hansen described much of her life after Dennis’ death as “a nightmare.” And while she acknowledged how strange the aftermath has been, she also emphasized the strong connection she has with her son.
“Absolutely everything depended on me and him,” Hansen said. “We are partners on such a deep level it’s unbelievable.
“We have a story to tell that’s just our story. There’s nobody else who walks our life but the two of us. It’s something that will forever bond us in a way that people just can’t understand or get close to. And I’m grateful for that, as a mom, to have that bond. I just wish it wasn’t the bond that we have.”