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Jennifer Tullis was just 19 when the Marine handed her the shell casings at the funeral. She didn’t really understand what he had given her.
Her 21-year-old husband, Sgt. Michael Peterson, had killed himself after returning home from his second deployment in 1999, and she was still reeling. The casings were left over from the 21-gun salute the Marines did to honor her husband. One of his friends had taken the time to gather them from the ground for her.
It wasn’t until later, speaking to an older military retiree at an event for the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors, that she grasped the significance. Now those shells are her most treasured keepsake of her husband.
"I’m one of the lucky ones to have those," said Tullis, now 31.
She keeps them wrapped in a handkerchief in a cup on the shelf, and one of the shells is in the flag the Marines gave her, which has never been unfolded.
"At first I did hold onto a lot, but as the years have gone by I’ve gotten rid of things, and I realized how much the shells mean to me," she said.
The shells are a reminder for her that her husband, the man she fell in love with at age 15, served and lived with honor.
"Mike was very serious, and he wanted to be a Marine his whole life," she said.
Thirteen years after his death, Tullis is still active in the TAPS community and in military suicide groups online. She speaks out often about suicide in the military.
"Some things have changed have a lot and some things haven’t changed at all," she said, mentioning that Marines and their family members are still fearful that asking for help will get the Marine red flagged by their command and hurt their career.
"I never thought my life would go this way," Tullis said. "I know he would be proud of me. I try to keep his memory alive, and make decisions he would have wanted."