No one should underestimate Beth Church's determination.
On the morning of July 3, 2009, she returned home after working the night shift in the Oak Hill Hospital ICU to find her husband of less than a year had committed suicide. She was eight and a half months pregnant.
Church's husband Paul, originally a reservist -- a Navy Seabee who had been called to active duty in Iraq from 2003 to 2004 -- was not active at the time of his death, making it difficult to prove that his death was service related. But Church knew differently.
Church, who is an R.N. and has worked for 13 years as a traveling nurse all over Florida, is originally from West Seneca and came back to Buffalo in August of 2010 specifically for the master's degree program in psychiatric nursing at UB's School of Nursing. She will graduate next summer.
"After what happened to Paul, I wanted to help other veterans and their families going through the same thing," said Church.
That desire to assist those grieving after a military suicide figured prominently when Church wrote her application essay for the Pat Tillman Scholarship.
Church won the scholarship and became part of the 2011 class of Tillman Military Scholars on May 5th 2011. The application process is arduous -- more than 1,200 applicants submit an essay and are interviewed by five individuals. Only 60 are granted scholarships.
The Tillman Foundation provides resources and educational scholarship support to veterans, active service members and their dependents. The foundation was developed to honor the memory of Pat Tillman, an NFL player with the Arizona Cardinals who put his career on hold to serve his country and died in Afghanistan in 2004.
Church's story is the plight of a young woman who, while grieving for her lost husband, was left alone to fight for the benefits her family deserved.
What happened to Paul Church? He was a newlywed, he had a secure position at the James A. Haley V.A. Hospital and he had a baby on the way.
Two events stand out.
In 2003, two weeks after arriving in Ramadi, Iraq as a newly deployed Navy Seabee with Naval Mobile Construction Battalion (NMCB) #14, an attack not far from his unit killed seven men and wounded more than 50. One of those killed was a close friend.
The Navy Seabees' insignia (named Seabees because they are construction battalions) shows a bee flying as he holds a small machine gun in two hands and a wrench and hammer in his other hands. Seabees are prepared to fight when necessary, but mostly they build and repair.
Paul Church wasn't prepared for that kind of tragedy.
"That had a much more serious effect on him than he let on," said Beth, "He tried to keep it to himself but I don't think he ever got over it. It's called survivor guilt."
Not long after the first attack, Church and a fellow Seabee were building bridges when a bomb went off so close to them that they were knocked unconscious. According to Beth Church, this was to have a subtle but growing effect on Paul's life.
Paul Church came home with PTSD and possibly traumatic brain injury (TBI) in 2004. He experienced hyperarousal syndrome and an exaggerated startle reflex. At one point, he literally jumped behind a restaurant counter when a car backfired.
Then he lost his business, his first wife and his father died.
"It was a rough homecoming," said Beth.
Beth Church knows now that though she and her new husband were happy together Paul was suffering silently, trying to protect her.
"I was having a difficult pregnancy and he didn't want to worry me."
Paul Church had been examined for TBI but nothing conclusive was discovered. However, he expressed concern to Beth about his attention span and his short-term memory.
After he died, Beth had to work to handle her grief, find psychological and financial support for veterans' dependents and take care of her infant son, Evan, who was born just three weeks after Paul's death.
She still had to prove that Paul's death was service related. That's when the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS) put her in touch with Terri Thibodeaux. Terri managed to get her case heard by Captain Matthew Berta, assistant to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff for Navy Reserve matters, and eventually Adm. Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Mullen and Church began corresponding via email.
Beth Church had been working for seven months to get Paul's benefits and within one month of her first correspondence with Mullen, she had them.
"I wouldn't be here if it weren't for Adm. Mullen and Captain Berta and an angel named Terri; they are my heroes," Beth said.
Beth Church wants to tell her husband's story and make it easier for families of military suicide to navigate the rough waters of getting benefits and getting psychological support.
She still cries when she talks about the night of her husband's death.
"Looking back on it, on the day he died he was alone all night holding back his guilt, his feelings about TBI. And then the last straw: the firecrackers going off because it was July 3. It might have been too much" she says.
When Beth Church completes her master's program, she will go back to Florida with Evan to be with Paul's friends and work at the V.A. as a psychiatric nurse practitioner.
"As part of my commitment to the Tillman Foundation, I want to develop seminars for before and after deployment on suicide prevention and I want to provide suicide-related grief counseling for veterans and their families. I am inspired by my beautiful husband, and hope to continue in my passion for helping veterans in Paul's honor."