THE FALLEN: Decades later, grief still grips

May 25, 2013 Updated: May 25, 2013 at 6:00 pm
photo - Emma Horn holds a portrait Friday, May 10, 2013, of her late husband and Vietnam War veteran Levi Horn who died of cancer 10 years after being exposed to Agent Orange during the war. Horn battled cancers for eight years.    (The Gazette, Christian Murdock)
Emma Horn holds a portrait Friday, May 10, 2013, of her late husband and Vietnam War veteran Levi Horn who died of cancer 10 years after being exposed to Agent Orange during the war. Horn battled cancers for eight years. (The Gazette, Christian Murdock) 

Time doesn't heal all wounds.

It's a lesson two local military widows have learned while spending long days and years without their Vietnam veteran husbands.

On Monday, the Pikes Peak region will pause to remember the sacrifices of those who died in the line of duty.

But Memorial Day is every day for the survivors of the fallen, many of whom battle intense emotional pain.

One unseasonably warm Colorado Springs morning in February 1969, Leona Carter woke up with aching shoulders. She figured she strained them while doing household chores that her husband, Army Sgt. 1st Class Harold Carter, might have helped with if he weren't in Vietnam.

The ache would spread to her heart that afternoon when two uniformed men pulled up in the driveway.

Harold Carter had been killed in a helicopter crash.

"I just took it for granted that I'd be on my own after that," Leona Carter said.

As for her aching shoulders: "I feel God was trying to tell me that I would carry many heavy crosses," she said.

For fellow Vietnam widow Emma Horn, there was no knock on the door.

Unlike Harold Carter, Sgt. 1st Class Levi Horn Sr. returned from Vietnam alive.

But he was fatally wounded, Emma Horn said. He wouldn't know it until 1996, when he was diagnosed with multiple myeloma, which Emma said resulted from his exposure to Agent Orange in Vietnam.

He died 71/2 years later.

"I've met so many Vietnam veterans who were exposed to Agent Orange, and they're dying, walking around as ticking time bombs," Emma Horn said.

When Harold Carter died, one of his Army buddies came to support Leona and the kids when they met his body at the airport. Her mother was able to stay for a while, too. A lieutenant provided her with sporadic help with paperwork for about a month.

But they had lives of their own.

"We were left to fend for ourselves," said Leona Carter, who finished raising the couple's five children alone and on a widow's pension.

During Vietnam, sympathy for war widows was hard to come by. The prevailing social climate often didn't allow them to safely and openly air their feelings, said Joanne Steen, a Navy widow, certified counselor and co-author of "Military Widow: A Survival Guide."

Some widows received "anonymous calls saying, 'I don't feel sorry for you. Your husband got what he deserved,'?" Steen said. "Most of those women were denied the opportunity to grieve for their husbands."

Though Leona Carter wasn't thanked for her sacrifice, she wasn't treated poorly during the war, she said.

But her children were, and that hurt just as badly.

"Other kids used to make remarks," she said.

Emma Horn, however, became intimately aware of the insults hurled at returning Vietnam veterans.

They were often hurled at her, too, she said, when she told others that her husband was serving a tour in the jungle.

"That's not something you forget," she said.

By the time Levi Horn died in May 2003, things were different for war widows. Popular opinion had come around.

Unlike Leona Carter, Emma Horn quickly gained a hearty support network.

It's made up of members of the Gold Canyon Gunfighters, a local Old West re-enactment group, whom she met at a cancer fundraiser.

The men and women of the group - many of them with military connections - have become like family to her.

"They make sure I'm never alone," Emma Horn said.

Every year on May 29, the anniversary of Levi Horn's death, she heads to the Garden of the Gods.

There, she releases a bundle of red heart balloons, each with a message for her husband penned in black permanent marker.

"Most people would think it's foolish, but to me, it's comforting," she said.

Forty-four years after the helicopter crash that killed her husband, Leona Carter is battling lymphoma.

"When I was diagnosed, I would have given anything to have my husband there," she said. "When you don't feel good, you don't want the kids to know. This should have been between me and my husband."

There isn't a thing Leona Carter doesn't miss about her husband - annoying habits included.

She especially misses the sweet ones.

"He liked to sneak up behind me in the kitchen when I was busy and kiss me on the neck," she said. "He was a crazy fool."

She once thought that reading his letters, which sometimes arrived at a rate of two and three a day, might bring her comfort.

"I read them sometimes, and I just cry," she said. "It's so sad. But I don't want to throw them out."

Had Leona Carter been able to see her husband or hear his voice again before he died, his death might have been a bit easier to live with, she said.

While Emma Horn is grateful for having had the chance to say goodbye to her husband, the experience has left her with memories she can't shake.

"I watched him die daily," she said. "I watched him go from a very strong man to one who had to depend on me for feeding him. That was the saddest part of it, to watch him lose his dignity."

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