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A Gold Star Spouse Finds Love Again

When Emily Feeks, a Navy cryptologist based in San Diego, was transferred to MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, Fla., in 2013, she viewed the move as a chance at a fresh start. The year before, on Aug. 16, 2012, her husband of 11 months, the Navy SEAL Patrick Feeks, was killed in a helicopter crash during a firefight with insurgents in Afghanistan.

Since his death, she said, “I was the person who, everywhere I went, people felt bad for me.”

Ms. Feeks found a social foothold in Tampa with help from Team Red, White & Blue, a nonprofit group that unites veterans with active service members and their families. By 2015, she was volunteering at food bank fund-raisers and other charity events with a new friend, Ryan Nitzsche, a former Marine sergeant.

Not all Team Red, White & Blue events she attended were for a cause, though. In January 2017, members of the local chapter got together for Tampa’s annual Gasparilla Pirate Festival. Mr. Nitzsche brought Curtis Owen, a civilian friend from childhood who had recently moved from Illinois to take a job as a science teacher at Tampa Catholic High School.

Ms. Feeks, 41, was curious right away. “I thought, ‘Who’s that new friend of Ryan’s?’” she said. “He’s pretty good-looking.”

That day, they flirted and sneaked off to a bar to play darts. Within weeks, they were falling in love. For Ms. Feeks, who had been on several dates before meeting Mr. Owen, 36, a new romance in a new locale finally seemed a possibility. “Other people had been worried about standing in my husband’s shadow,” she said. “It was becoming an obstacle.”

With Mr. Owen, that was never an issue. “I always say, ‘Curtis doesn’t have a jealous bone in his body, and everybody should be jealous about that,’” she said. For him, dating a Gold Star spouse — the surviving husbands and wives of military members who lost their lives in the line of duty — was less a threat than an honor.

“I told her, don’t ever be afraid to talk about him,” Mr. Owen said. Soon after they became a couple, he signed up for the Tampa Bay Frogman Swim, a five-kilometer water challenge that doubles as a fund-raiser for the Navy SEAL Foundation. He has been a regular participant since.

Credit…Sabrina Autumn Photography
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In 2019, Ms. Feeks retired with the rank of petty officer first class. Her final few years as a military cryptologist had been draining. “By then, I had to force myself to stay in the Navy,” she said.

The same year, Mr. Owen moved out of an apartment they called “the shoe box” and moved in with her. On Thanksgiving, just before they were due at a friend’s house for dinner, he dropped to one knee in their living room and asked her to marry him.

She said yes instantly, though any implication that a new marriage canceled out an old one did not sit well with her: “My new husband does not negate my deceased husband, or what he did for this country,” she said.

The subject of remarriage had also become complicated for her because Gold Star spouses are required to give up survivor benefits like retirement pay if they remarry before age 55. (A bill introduced in April by two military veterans in Congress would remove the penalty).

“As a military veteran, I did the calculations and figured out I could afford to live off my benefits,” she said. But the promise of her own happily ever after with Mr. Owen left Ms. Feeks uneasy about fellow Gold Star spouses who turn down marriage proposals because of the financial fallout. “I am a huge advocate for women being able to keep their benefits regardless of whether they remarry.”

She will continue her advocacy as a twice-married woman. On Oct. 9, Ms. Feeks and Mr. Owen were wed at the Collection on Palmetto, a private car museum in Clearwater, Fla. Their friend Todd Cowan, a Marine veteran and a Universal Life Church minister, officiated before 150 guests, including her former mother-in-law and father-in-law, Virginia and Thomas Feeks. Regina Feeks, Mr. Feeks’s sister, was a bridesmaid.

“Pat’s family has always been there for me,” she said. In Mr. Owen, she found someone equally devoted. “Curt helps me through my struggles.”

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