By Judy Christie
When Cheryl Toland’s husband of nearly 47 years died of Agent Orange-related heart problems in 2018, she did not even know what a “surviving spouse liaison” was.
But the MOAA chapter where CW4 Robert Toland, USA (Ret), had been a member stepped up to help — and changed her life.
“I became a surviving spouse at only 68,” she said. “I was afraid my life didn't have much of a direction, but my MOAA Mount Rainier Chapter helped bring me out of that fear.”
Now age 74, she is not only the surviving spouse liaison for the Mount Rainier (Wash.) Chapter but also vice president for surviving spouse affairs for MOAA’s Washington State Council of Chapters. Honoring her relentless work to help others, Toland has been named council-level recipient of MOAA’s 2023 Surviving Spouse Liaison Excellence Award.
Among those who praise her dedication is Col. David R. Casteel, USAF (Ret), president of the Washington State Council of Chapters, who said Toland is determined to keep MOAA members informed.
“I wish I could clone her passion and zeal to educate and advocate and infuse it into each chapter,” Casteel said. “She has made a difference in our council and our chapters, but she knows more needs — and can be — done and is always looking for ways to do so.”
Toland, a Life Member of MOAA, said her commitment springs from joyful days as the “proud wife of a warrant officer.” She encourages everyone to pay attention to survivor benefits, no matter age or status. “You will need to know it someday,” she said.
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In any given week, she might speak to a neighboring MOAA chapter about what members need to know before becoming a surviving spouse, contact a widow or widower to offer guidance, update a presentation for a Mount Rainier Chapter meeting, or write her monthly column for the newsletter. She diligently researches legislation that affects active duty and retired members of the military and their spouses and frequently says, “You need to contact your congressman on this.”
She also is a member of MOAA’s Surviving Spouse Virtual Chapter, helps surviving spouses in the U.S. Army Warrant Officers Association chapter at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, is a facilitator of a GriefShare program at her church, and is involved with the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors, the Elizabeth Dole Foundation, the VA Caregivers Assistance Program, and Gold Star Wives. A retired hairdresser of 54 years, she squeezes in time to give free haircuts and perms at an assisted-living facility and goes for daily walks with her son who lives nearby.
Her experiences as a surviving spouse have led to hard-earned advice for surviving spouses. “I think it was one of the ways after Bob died that I survived,” she said. “Part of healing is helping others through the things you have experienced. We are told in scriptures to serve others as we have been served. … Don’t become stagnant. Don’t get stuck in your grief. The more you help others, the more it helps you heal.”
Judy Christie is a writer based in Colorado.
MOAA’s Surviving Spouse Corner
Hear from members of our Surviving Spouse Advisory Council and others on issues that affect you. Updated monthly.