SMYRNA — It has been more than six months since Lynel Winters lost her husband, Marine 1st Lt. James Zimmerman, a 25-year-old Smyrna native who was killed Nov. 2, 2010, while conducting combat operations in Helmand province in Afghanistan. His death and its aftermath are realities that Winters knows she can’t run away from.
But there is something out there that she can run toward, and that is a positive way to honor her husband’s memory. One of the many steps she has taken to do that will lead her to Washington, D.C., in October, where she will run in the Marine Corps Marathon in honor of her husband.
Winters has joined a team of seven other people and is running in the marathon on Oct. 30 to support the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors, or TAPS, a program that Winters said on Thursday has been “a lifeline” for her.
“They reached out to me immediately after James was killed,” she said in a phone interview from her home in Richlands, N.C. “It has been really beneficial for me.”
TAPS provides 24/7 tragedy assistance to anyone who has suffered the loss of a military loved one, regardless of the relationship to the deceased or the circumstance of the death, according to its website. Among its services, TAPS provides peer-based emotional support, case work assistance, crisis intervention, and grief and trauma resources.
Winters and others on the 1st Lt. Zimmerman marathon team, which includes friends and soldiers who served with Zimmerman during his military career, are seeking donations so that they can raise as much money as possible for the TAPS program.
Winters, a veterinarian, was working in Rhode Island when she received news that Zimmerman, a graduate of Greater Houlton Christian Academy and the University of Maine, had been killed.
He joined the Marines in 2003 and was deployed to Afghanistan last June. He was based at Camp Lejeune, N.C., and assigned to the 2nd Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment, 2nd Marine Division, II Marine Expeditionary Force. He and Winters, a Madawaska native, met while both were UMaine students. They were married in 2008.
“Anytime you lose your husband, it is traumatic, but it is different when your husband is in the military,” Winters said. “It complicates the grieving process. Your family may be in a different state and you are probably a long way away from them, and the death is likely going to be publicized in the media. I felt isolated in my grief. I didn’t know anyone who had lost their husband like I did. So it helped when the people from the TAPS program reached out to me.”
One of the TAPS services that Winters said she has found most valuable is the peer-based emotional support. TAPS officials matched her up with a “buddy,” a military peer who also had lost her husband.
“That person is a little further ahead in the grieving process, and she has been really helpful to me,” said Winters. “People from TAPS call me at least once a month to check in, and all of this is absolutely free. I know that they have also been there for James’ parents [Tom and Jane Zimmerman of Smyrna] as well.”
Winters said she and Zimmerman always wanted to take part in the Marine Corps Marathon, but they never found the time. When she heard that you could form a team to run for the TAPS program, she recruited people and signed up.
“James was very physically fit, and he had these long legs so he would always beat me when we were running,” she recalled. “I know that he would be happy that I am doing this. I want to make sure that I grieve honorably for him, and I think this is a good way to do it.”
In the months since Zimmerman’s death, Winters said little has gotten easier for her. Despite having attended the funeral in Houlton and burial in Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia, Winters said her husband’s death “didn’t feel real” until Zimmerman’s fellow soldiers came home from Afghanistan in January — and he wasn’t with them.
“It wasn’t real until I saw all of his friends,” she said. “And then it hit me.”
“Each day is still a struggle,” she continued. “I thought I was going crazy for awhile, just because it didn’t feel real. But then I got involved with people in the TAPS program, and I learned that other people felt the same way, and that I wasn’t alone.”
Winters said that setting a goal for herself, such as running a marathon, has “been good therapy.”
“Any time that I don’t feel like running, I think of James and how he sacrificed his life for something bigger than himself,” she said. “I push myself, because James always pushed himself.”
At this point, Winters is concentrating on the marathon and raising as much money for her team as she can. She said she is not yet ready to go back to practicing emergency veterinary medicine and trying to heal animals who are badly injured.
“That type of work is really emotionally draining, and I am still really broken right now,” she said. “The things that used to give me a lot of joy, they don’t give me as much pleasure as they used to. There isn’t a day that goes by that I wish I couldn’t erase what happened. Right now, I just want to push toward October and think of myself running for James. I think that is going to help me the most right now.”
To donate to Winters, log on to: http://TAPS.kintera.org/mcm2011/1stltzimmerman.
Each of her teammates also has to raise $500 to participate. To donate to the team, log on to: http://TAPS.kintera.org/mcm2011/1stltzimmermanteam.
On each page there is a link that allows you to print a donation form, which can be filled out and mailed in. The donation form and check can be mailed to: TAPS, Attn: TAPS Run and Remember Team, 1777 F St Reet, NW Suite 600, Washington, DC 20006.
Additionally, anyone interested in joining Winter’s team and running the marathon may do so on the team page under “JOIN OUR TEAM.”
Anyone with questions can call Marie Campbell at the TAPS number at 800-959-8277 or 202-714-6386.