The Regalado Family (Gold Star)
It’s part of life to have obstacles. It’s about overcoming obstacles; that’s the key to happiness.
— Herbie Hancock

Imagine all of your dreams, ideas, and visions of “what might have been” dashed against the rocks on the stormy seas of life as you lose your one, true love in a land thousands of miles away. A young love and promises of “forever” forfeited as your husband is tragically killed in a land thousands of miles away. Mosul takes another war-fighter’s soul, a city well known for its horrors (argued to be the worst in Iraq) stuck in a space of corrupt infrastructure and constant civil war. Over the past year and a half I’ve had the wonderful privilege of getting to know this incredible warrior of a woman. She lost her husband Josè, at 21 years old just as their life together had begun. Their beautiful daughter Jamie had just been born, bearing a striking resemblance to Josè. He had just met her while on his two week leave. All those aspirations of raising a family together were violently terminated and Sharri was left, at 21 years old a single mother, to a child that never knew the man who gave her life.

Still this tragic loss is just one part of the story. Sharri already knew grief and loss. As a youth, she’d bounced around from family member to family member, robbed of all the ingredients a child needs to thrive; a solid foundation, consistent love, and steady discipline. Her mother did a stint in an Idaho State Prison during Sharri’s most formative years, and her father was a barbarous deadbeat who couldn’t hold a job and regularly abused her mother. So, as a young child Sharri learned those things only the “school of hard knocks” can teach its pupils. She found a steady resolve somewhere within, and that face constantly carried a shy smile defying the odds that said she needed to live in a morose condition beaten down by her status. Her life was continually in a state of upheaval, moving from one place to the next as family persistently victimized her as a sort of living, breathing financial institution they could use to garnish wages at the hands of the state. Then, she finally finds a place of solidarity in the loving arms of a dashing young soldier and once again, tragedy strikes with unforgiving ferocity. The common denominator comes calling like a demon in the dark, maniacally begging for Sharri to give in and give up. She didn’t. She wouldn’t be beaten. She wouldn’t be a victim. In a day and age where we exhaust the term “courage” and position it as some sort of social statement, Sharri became the very definition of the word.

Fast forward all these years and we can all witness Sharri’s transformation from a devastated girl to that of an impeccable example of a woman and mother. She stands as the very exemplification of triumphing over personal pains and the shock of ultimate loss, into a space of elite wisdom as a mother of two. Take some time today as you read this to remember the Gold Star Wives who never could’ve known that they’d be committing themselves to such agonizing terror, but in doing so laid their sacrifices at the altar of freedom in a contribution to our individual liberties. This is Sharri’s story.

Can you talk about your life growing up?

SR:  I have a plan of writing a book about my childhood because of the huge disaster it was.  It actually worked out in the end to make me a better spouse and parent. It was a complete shit show to be honest.  Everything that could possibly go wrong in a childhood went wrong. I didn’t meet my mom until I was almost nine-years old. There were a lot of different people that raised me.  Us kids were seen as a financial gain to have around.  When I was four years old my mom went to prison. My dad was highly abusive to my mom.  She was six months pregnant with a baby before me and he pushed her down the stairs. The baby died from the fall.  My mom had a miscarriage and six months later I was conceived. She just handled the abuse over the years because she was so accustomed to it.  When I was four she began dating someone else and I have no idea where my sisters along with myself were. My mom’s boyfriend, Michael, decided to steal a car and take my mom for a joyride.  My mom says she didn’t realize it was stolen and she is brutally honest. I have no questions about it. He stole the car, took my mom on the ride, and then totaled the car after he dropped her off.  He crashed the car into the actual dealership window and then took off.

They lifted my mom’s prints from the car after he ran off. He told her what he did and asked her if she’d take the wrap for it.  He told my mom that he had priors and she had a clean record so she wouldn’t get much time. She had believed him about it but she ended up serving four years at Boise State Women's Penitentiary. During that time my dad was raising us and I am the youngest of the four.  It was just me and my older sister living there at the time. He had no idea how to raise two little girls and passed us on to his mom. She was an older woman with a lot of health issues. She ended up passing us on to my Aunt Tabby who already had two kids of her own. She couldn’t raise us either.  She passed us on to her sister. We all lived in the same trailer park and just were shuffled around the entire park. We basically moved from trailer to trailer. It was at this point when no one could raise us that they contacted my family in California. My Aunt Linda lived out there and drove to Idaho and picked us up.  We had no idea who these people were since we had never met them.

My sister and I had our clothes in big black trash bags and that's how we left. They introduced us to our Aunt Linda and told us to have a good life. We jumped into the van she had rented and headed to California. I have always been optimistic almost to a fault.  I hopped in the van and thought, “Okay, this is what we are doing. This is my life now.” I was just hoping that when we arrived that we would have a bed.  There was a point when we had no beds. I remember thinking it was cool that we would get to see the desert too. We arrived in California and my aunt was everything that I had never experienced as a kid.  She loved me and doted on me every day. I had my own bedroom with a closet. I had never had an actual closet before.  

How old were you were you at the time?

SR:  I was six years old and my mom had been in prison for two years at this point.  When I moved to California I had just finished Kindergarten in Boise. My dad had no idea how to raise me so I had never even gone to school.  I had missed 50-55 days of school in Kindergarten. I ended up having to repeat Kindergarten all over when I got to California. My aunt doted on me and would do my hair.  This was the first home I had ever had. My Aunt Linda raised me and at one point when another aunt saw she was getting financial assistance, went after us. She just wanted the money.  She filed a claim with Child Protective Services stating that we weren’t being taken care of. While they were investigating if it was a safe place for us to live, they put us in her care.  This aunt decided at one point that she no longer wanted to take care of two kids and passed us to our grandma. My grandma was in her mid 60s and I remember playing with a skippit. My sister and I were skipping in this ratchet driveway with potholes everywhere.  My sister fell and scraped up her leg pretty bad. Someone called CPS and said that they thought we were being abused. We were just rough and tough kids playing. We were always dirty, bruised, and scratched up. CPS came out and took us from our grandma’s house while they did the wellness check. Over the next few years we lived with other family members.  They all kept calling CPS and reporting abuse or neglect because they wanted the financial assistance. The only person who genuinely cared about us was my Aunt Linda. She was the one who wanted us. My Nana absolutely adored my sister and I too.

When my mom came back from prison I was nine years old and she had a history.  She couldn’t get an apartment on her own and was working full time at night.  We lived with my Nana the entire time while this was going on. I was 11 years old when my mom was finally able to get an apartment on her own.  It was right next to my Nana because she was friends with the landlord. We have always been neighbors with my Nana. If she moved, we would move right next door to her.  It just worked out that way. My mom generally worked nights so she could be home while we were at school in case something happened. This was probably one of the best things she could have done as a parent.  Everything else was terrible. She was the youngest of ten siblings and just didn’t know how to be a parent. When you are the youngest of that many kids you just do what you want. She was never parented right either.  She was constantly in and out of abusive relationships. She just had no idea what to do. We moved a lot and I actually went to three different schools by the time I was in sixth grade. I never really minded because that meant new friends. It was never a big crazy move but usually just like ten minutes away from the previous place.  I just made the best of it and knew it would be okay. My point of view was it could always be worse. That’s the same mentality that got me through Jose’s death.

Do you remember how you met Jose?

SR:  We have such a funny story about how we actually met.  I was dating someone else at the time and 18 years old.  I moved out of my mom's apartment and knew this relationship wasn’t working. It was just very toxic.  My sister Sarah was dating her boyfriend that we knew from high school. They went to our rival high school and had met through mutual friends.  My sister had said, “Eric is so cute. He’s really cute.” We would go visit him at his job at Taco Bell. He deployed and during that first deployment they started talking even more through Yahoo! Messenger.  He would send her music boxes, chocolates, and jewelry from Italy. I remember coming home from a late night binge drinking party with my sister. She woke up the next morning to flowers with a note saying, “I hope you feel better.”  I said, “You get hangover flowers? Does he have a brother?” I wanted that kind of relationship (laughs). She told me he had a brother. I wanted his phone number immediately (laughs). She told me a week later that Eric had proposed and she was going to marry him.  She gave me his brother’s phone number since we were now going to be family.

She specifically said to me, “Don’t fuck this up.” I said, “How am I going to do that? He lives in Kentucky. Don’t worry about it.” I had this cheap cell phone and I remember laying on the bed calling him.  I said, “I don’t know if you heard the news or not but my sister and Eric are getting married.” He answered by saying, “ This is Sergeant Regalado.” As soon as he said those words I thought, “Yes, that’s hot.” We talked for 3 hours and he told me what he did in the military and he lived in Kentucky.  I remember hanging up and thinking that I would marry him. My sister was furious because she had told me not to fuck things up. He lived in Kentucky and I just wanted to daydream about the whole thing. He began writing me cards and we talked on Yahoo! Messenger a lot. We talked like three or five hours a night.  He would eventually say, “I have to go to PT and I had 30 minutes of sleep.”

It was amazing.  It was so nice because there was just an emotional commitment.  I felt like I could still have my own social life, while I got to know this amazing guy over the phone. I could still enjoy my friends but also enjoy the conversations too.  I had never had this level of communication when I was dating so it was very different. My dating history in high school was a complete disaster.  My mom went through a lot of great stories that she can one day tell my kids (laughs). Jose called me one night at around 10 pm and told me to get on Yahoo Messenger.  I remember that was showing me a song from Josh Turner about going with him to the end of the world.  He was singing it to me and I thought it was so sweet. Josè is from El Sereno, California and his parents are from Mexico and to have this very Hispanic man serenading me was so amazing.  It was so sweet of him trying to sing this country song to me. I quietly laughed because I hated country music. I grew up with my mom listening to Garth Brooks, Trisha Yearwood and Reba Mcentire.  He then told me he had bought me a one way ticket to Kentucky.

He said he didn’t want to know if I was going to be on it but that he would be at the airport waiting for me. I could show up or not but he would be there waiting on that day.  He told me he would see me in the morning because the flight was the next day. I remember getting off Yahoo! Messenger and wondering if I even had any luggage (laughs). “How do I get to the airport?” I asked myself. I had never even flown on an airplane.  I was at my mom’s house so I looked through her things and found a piece of luggage, packing it with whatever clothes I had. “What do I pack? Do I pack my books?” I wondered to myself (laughs). I had no idea what I was doing. My sister was flying to Clarksville that morning since her fiance was coming back from Iraq in a couple of weeks so my mom was driving her to the airport.  She came home and I told her I had a surprise. I told her I was moving to Kentucky. My mom has never fully forgiven me for that. She texted me a few days ago that she was still sad about that day, but very proud of the person I have become. She still holds onto that with a slight hint of animosity (laughs).

What do you remember about Josè that attracted you initially?

SR:  Josè was brutally honest.  I was the baby of my family and people generally tried to just appease me with things they said.  When I was in Boise we were so poor there wasn’t much I could ask for but they would just give in and adored me.  I was just a very happy and bubbly kid that was easy to please. He would tell me things didn’t work that way with him (laughs).  He had a strong personality and I am a “go with the flow” type of person. I never had any stability in my life and thought it was nice for a change.  He told me how things worked and helped me to actually live an adult life. He saved me in a lot of ways. He gave me my first actual home as an adult with stability.  I knew that he chose to love me before he even met me. I had never had that in my life. There was always a question if my family loved me for financial gain or just genuinely loved me.  There was no motivation for him as far as financial gain. All he gained from me was a relationship.

What do you remember about your wedding?

SR:  Our wedding was totally spur of the moment. I was running one of the graduations there at Fort Knox and there was a torrential downpour of rain.  It was so cold and we were inside. I just sat there watching Josè do his thing and after the ceremony he said, “We should go get married.” I told him I didn’t even know how you would go about doing that.  We went down to the County Clerk's office down in Elizabethtown. I was wearing these hideous white capris and a Volcom sweater with a polka dot headband. He was in uniform. We went to the courthouse and they told us we needed two witnesses.  I was scrambling, texting people to find someone to be our witness for the ceremony. My friend Stephanie came along with her sister who I had never met. We had a quick 10 minute wedding and took a few pictures before my camera died (laughs). That was it.  I remember thinking it couldn’t get any better. I was nervous inside but then that was it. I didn’t need fancy. My hair was soaking wet, I had a cold sore on my lip but I had a husband. I just knew this was it with him.

After your wedding did Jose deploy?

SR:  I moved out there in September 2006 and I came back home in October to visit.  It was Josè’s sisters wedding and he invited me. I was so lost because I didn’t speak any Spanish.  It was so different. My sister had already known his family since she had met them the year before when she and Eric got engaged.  She had picked up enough Spanish to be able to talk to them and had a relationship with his younger sister. This was hard for me because she was close to my sister and Josè had been married before me.  He got married at 18 and strictly because he wanted the extra BAH while he was deployed (laughs). It didn’t end well. It was a deployment where you come home and the bank account is cleared. His family when I came along were expecting that and it took a bit for me to be welcomed.  They were pretty jaded.

He didn’t leave right away after we got married but was in the field a lot.  We were married in May 2007 and that is when we went to the courthouse. My hair was a mess and I was wearing a Volcom sweater that I highly regret wearing.  There are moments in my relationship with him that I can remember like it was yesterday. I remember getting dressed in the morning and knowing we had a graduation.  I was wearing white capris with a black Volcom sweater (laughs). We knew right away after we got married we knew that we wanted to have quite a few kids. We were married on May 3rd but I would always say May 5th and he would correct me.  He would say, “Sharri, that’s Cinco de Mayo!” We found out I was pregnant a few days before his birthday on May 11th. I was at work and in quite a bit of pain. I ended up passing out and work and they rushed me to the emergency room. I had a miscarriage due to the hospital giving me a completely unnecessary surgery.  My body went into too much stress and I lost the baby. We wanted to have a baby before he deployed. I wanted to be pregnant so badly.

They told me I had to wait three months before I tried to have another baby. I have PCOS which makes it hard to conceive because the ovaries are covered in cysts. It just makes it difficult.  That was not the case for me. When they gave us the go ahead we started trying to get pregnant and found out I was pregnant on Thanksgiving. We weren’t married long before he got his deployment orders. Josè was in a pretty bad car wreck that winter from hitting black ice and had a concussion. This combined with his PTS from his past deployment left a lot to be worked on before he deployed.  It seems like so much of our relationship was focused on getting pregnant. He wanted to have an entire football team (laughs). I was the youngest of four and never wanted to have a lot of kids. When you are the youngest you are spoiled, the oldest is off doing their own thing, and the middle kid is the one who no one takes pictures of (laughs).

I met him at 18 and we were married at 19. I had no idea how to cook and he comes from a Mexican family where everyone knows how to cook.  Even the youngest can cook beans and rice. I didn’t even know how to do my own laundry (laughs). When he moved me out there I remember a point where I went to Walmart and bought rice packets.  We didn’t have a lot of money and were actually pretty poor. He came home and said, “This is amazing.” He legitimately thought I made it from scratch and I was about to inform him I’d made it ten minutes before he got home.  I debated telling him it wasn’t from scratch but instead went into the kitchen to hide the packages. He would ask me to make Spanish rice. I didn’t think they made those packets in that flavor and didn’t know how I was going to do it (laughs).  He had me call his mom and ask. She speaks very broken English and the directions were not easy to understand.

I tried to understand her but I didn’t think they even sold the spices she was telling me in Kentucky (laughs). At this point in our marriage, I didn’t know who I was or what I wanted.  I just cared about being married to Josè. He acted like all the burnt food I cooked was the best he had ever eaten. We traveled within a certain radius that the military said we could travel. It was a relationship where you felt like you didn’t have to have a lot to have everything. We had extremely cheap sofas in the living room.  His wedding ring was one from Walmart and mine was a tiny diamond from Kay Jewelers. His ring turned his finger green but he wouldn’t take it off ever (laughs). I didn't feel the need to have stuff but was happy to have just him. He made it easy to be a young wife and fall into the military lifestyle.  I wanted to be where it wasn't a chore. I knew he would come home. It didn’t feel like work and it was easy.

When Jose deployed how did that make you feel?

SR:  I didn’t come from a military family and Josè was my introduction to that lifestyle.  He had been home for a year and was telling me there was a good chance he would get deployed.  In 2007 and 2008 it was not an easy time overseas. He just wanted me to be aware of the possibility.  We got his orders in October and I can remember him texting me. His text was, “Hey, I got some orders. I’m going overseas.”  He had actually received an email telling him he was going to Ranger School before those orders. I told him there was no way he could deploy because of the school in North Carolina.  Ranger school would need to wait. He informed me that was not how it worked (laughs). The deployment orders superceded anything and everything. I kept thinking that he had school. He just kept telling me he didn’t have a choice and he needed to go.  When I wrapped my head around this not being a choice I didn’t say anything to anyone. My sister's husband had already been through a deployment and I just felt like something was going to happen. It was an instant feeling of dread. I didn’t know what to do with it.  I didn’t want to tell Josè that I was feeling something would go wrong. I had never been through a deployment. Does everybody have this feeling? I wondered that all the time. This was a month after I found out I was pregnant and he left for Fort Hood in November.

I was living in Kentucky with my 3 cats and had a home there.  Josè wasn’t leaving until January so we could sell our house and move to Fort Hood.  We lived 45 minutes away from post and I knew we couldn't rent it or sell it quick. I told him to go and I would meet him there.  I stayed behind to get the house ready. He wasn’t supposed to leave until January so we had plenty of time. He texted me on December 13th and told me I needed to get there.  His deployment was now December 18th and informed there was a lot going on so it was bumped up. I tried to pack up all the remaining stuff we had. Josè was a huge car buff and loved taking them apart.  He didn’t always get them put back together (laughs). At the time we had a 1995 Toyota Tacoma transmission sitting in our driveway. There was no way we would sell our house with this sitting there. I was pregnant with Jamie at the time and knew I needed to leave.  I had a huge lifted truck and put this transmission in the back of it. Imagine a pregnant woman with this transmission strapped to her truck’s back all because I wanted to be where my husband was. It wasn’t super smart but I knew I had to do it. The very next day I got into my truck at 4 am and drove straight to Texas.  I remember seeing him and he was getting his guys ready to go. The guys he was in charge of were 19 and 20 years old who had just gotten married. I was the one with no experience and telling them we would be okay. If the wives freaked out then the husband did too. There was this lingering feeling that something would happen though.  It took me 18 hours to get there because I got lost on the trip and ended up in Ohio somehow (laughs). I knew I had to see him for as long as I could before he left. He had a studio apartment reserved for us. I knew that I had to handle it because I was now a military wife. Josè’s parents came down from California and wanted me to move with them so that I wouldn’t have to raise a little girl on my own.  I didn’t know this plan yet (laughs).

I got there and had to get everything in order so I could spend those few precious hours with my husband.  When we first got married he had told me I needed to understand that I would be second to the military. It was a top priority to make sure his guys came home from deployment.  On his first deployment they lost a large handful of guys and having that year at home made him more aware of that. He couldn’t have that happen again. He couldn't be preoccupied about what was going on at home.  It was always, “Yes, you are pregnant but you have a home to live in. You are taken care of. I have to take care of my guys.” That was his philosophy. The deployment was smooth and easy because I didn’t know otherwise.  I had no reference point for what could go wrong. We had letters and had MySpace (laughs). That made it pretty easy. I wrote him a letter for every single day of the deployment. I didn’t understand that they don’t get them every day but in bulk instead.  I didn’t want there to ever be a day that he thought I wasn’t thinking about him. The deployment really was something that I was worried about without being worried about.  I knew that if I thought too much about it my mind would wander. I knew not to go there because worry would takeover and send me into a panic if I did.  

What would you tell anyone leading into a deployment the most effective thing is?

SR: The most important thing was to not have expectations.  You have to realize that you aren't going to talk to your spouse every single day.  In 2007/2008 time frame we didn’t have that guarantee every day. There were times throughout my pregnancy I only spoke to him maybe once a day.  In 2019 there is Face time and text messaging to speak to your spouse. They are still in a war zone, and the best way to look at it is through the lens of no expectations.  If you think you can talk and have the same type of strong marriage as before, that’s not the reality of the situation. There is stress on both sides. I got frustrated with Jose because he couldn't tell me what was going on over there all the time.  I had the expectations of talking all the time and that just wasn’t realistic. Not talking to my husband in two weeks was tough at first. It’s just better to know that you need to be open-minded and understand anything can happen. There are so many things that can change when they’re deployed.  You could possibly go for weeks without talking to them depending on their missions.

How long was Jose into the deployment when Jaimie was born?

SR:  Josè was deployed in December and it was nine months into his 15 month deployment.  I was happy he wasn’t there when she was born. Jose had bigger plans in taking care of his men in combat and making sure they were safe.  That was his priority. Josè being there for this tiny, squishy human being who only poops and eats wasn’t all that important at the time (laughs).  There was another guy that had a baby during the time and we agreed to let him go on leave instead of Josè. We understood that he didn’t know what he could actually do with a brand new baby.  There isn’t much you can do with an infant. They feed, they go to the bathroom and they go back to sleep. I didn’t want him there for the birth and honestly wanted him to pass through the entire pregnancy.  I wanted him to come home when I was calm and not so emotionally fragile because of the first stages of having an infant. It wasn't that hard for me. I was texting him the entire time I was in labor and keeping him informed about what was going on.  I told him I had been induced, been in labor 14 hours and was going back for a C-Section. He texted me that he loved me. I honestly wasn’t stressed out. It was a relief to know that when he came home later I wouldn’t be groggy or exhausted. It was something we were both set on.

What was it like seeing Jaimie for the first time?

SR:  Jaimie looked just like Josè from the day she was born.  She had a head full of dark hair and beautiful brown eyes. She had what is called the “Mongolian Spot” on her back which is common for Hispanic kids.  I instantly saw Josè when I looked at her face. That made it easier for me because she looked just like him. It was hard not having the extra comfort of him being there and reassurance but I knew I could get through it. Jaimie was a month old when Josè came home on leave.  I met him at the airport and Jaimie was crying because it was time for her to eat.  I got lost in the airport and I was just holding her telling her it would be okay. I didn't know which gate Josè was coming out from and I was so nervous.  I had butterflies in my stomach like the first time I met him. It felt like meeting him all over again.

He came out and it wasn’t like a “There’s my wife” moment.  Instead, it was “There’s my baby,” and he immediately grabbed her from me (laughs). He wanted to give her a kiss and hold her. He gave me a kiss on the forehead. He had no idea what to do or how to hold her.  It was definitely awkward at first but he just wanted to hold her. That was all he wanted to talk about the entire drive home. I had spent the entire deployment sending pictures of my belly. I had 3-D ultrasounds done every two months so he could see the growth.  They would send him videos. I think looking back that may have been excessive (laughs). I really tried to do everything I could so he would know that this was his baby. I could see so much pride in him when he held her. It was a huge deal. His friend Chad Caldwell had been killed the month before and I could tell it was comforting for him to see her.  He wanted to come home and meet his baby. He needed to be able to see her in case something happened to him.

What do you remember about him being back home?

SR: We spent too much money (laughs).  It was the best time. We had $10,000 in the bank account which was huge.  He came home and had bought this ugly old BMW so he could fix it up. He loved everything about this car.  He wanted to paint it and put in new seats. I knew how much he loved old cars and was okay with that. I just wanted to know if he had a plan for it.  We went to the gun range in downtown LA and drove around the area where he grew up. He showed me where his dad and grandpa grew up. I have videos of us driving around and him telling me all of these things about how he grew up.  He explained everywhere he went as a kid. It was the first time he told me stories of being a kid. He wasn't nostalgic and for him to give that many details was a really big deal. When I realized he was going to keep talking about it I got my camera out and had him tell me more.  I wanted to know all these things so that we could bring Jamie back one day. He showed me where his Nana lived and where he played basketball. The entire time he was home, I could see this nostalgia in him that I’d never seen.

I told him we needed to have a savings account of when he got home.  He was on the line of getting out and his dad wanted him to get out. His dad does flooring and is very successful.  He told him to come work for him and open a restaurant. The plan was to open a Mexican restaurant. His mom and I would cook, which was a joke (laughs).  He was seriously convinced I could cook (laughs). It was hard for him to be home. He was torn between going back for his guys and staying home with his family.  Family was everything to him. It was a massive internal conflict. When the time came he knew he had to go. He said, “I need to get back to my guys now. It’s been nice. I love you and I need to make sure my guys are safe.”  I dropped him off at the airport and he told me to stay in the car. He wanted me not to cry. He told me my job was to take care of his family and our daughter.

Did he seem scared when he left?

SR: When we were first married he had told me that he would die in battle.  There is nothing else in this world he cared more about when he was overseas than his guys.  He wanted to know they were okay and safe. He wasn’t worried about it. He never said he was scared.  It was just something that he felt would happen. He believed he was making a difference and needed to go back and do his job.  It was never about fear. He had made it through his first deployment at 19 years old and felt he would make it through. I believe he was mentally prepared if something happened.  

We had 14 tough boxes that we ended up getting back.  In one of the boxes was an Iraqi microwave and I just wondered why he didn’t leave it for the other guys.  I couldn’t even plug it in anywhere so I ended up taking it to Goodwill (laughs). I remember going over every piece while laughing and crying over them all. I never knew the story behind every piece of his belongings.  Most of the items were things that were in his room at the time with him. It was all of his medals and a little bit of everything associated with the deployment. I had never experienced anything like this so I didn't really have any plans.  I was working full time and going to school full time. It was just to get through the day.  

What were some things you did to keep yourself busy while he was deployed?

SR: I went to school full time.  When I met him I was going to school and working at a Christian bookstore.  I worked there full time, school full time and was pregnant. When I wasn’t at work or school I was with my mom.  I walked seven miles a day while I was pregnant. I didn’t focus on the deployment because that made it too real. I had no expectations about the deployment and didn't watch the news until guys in his unit started dying.  I thought at that point I should start watching the news and reading more about what was happening. The work and school kept me so busy. I had several scares being pregnant with Jaimie and was in the hospital three times with her.  

Can you take me through the day leading up to when you found out?

SR: I had a sinking feeling the entire day before it happened. My sister drove a Scion TC and I was sitting in the backseat of her car.  At the time I had a T-Mobile sidekick phone and we were driving to my house. I can remember driving there while Josè and I were texting each other.  He had called a few days before to tell me that he didn’t feel he would be coming home and we should prepare for it. He asked me what I thought about that and I just remember this long silent moment.  I didn’t want to say it but from the moment he had been given his orders I didn’t think he would come home. I told him and he just wasn’t even phased by what I said. He told me that he didn’t want anything girly or a bunch of flowers.  He didn’t want to be cremated and threatened to haunt me if I did (laughs). He wanted a mahogany casket and his dad would pick where he would be buried. Josè thought I couldn’t move on or get remarried if his memory was haunting me so his dad would choose the place.  His dad would be the one visiting the most. Josè wanted the picture from our wedding day on the casket. I remember us joking about all of this. He said to me, “On a more serious note, I want you to know that this is what I want.”

I went back to my house to grab a few things I needed and returned to my sister’s house.  My sister’s husband was currently deployed overseas in Iraq as well. I had been living with her since I had Jamie and didn’t want to live alone in Kentucky.  There was nothing about the day that sat right with me. We were watching TV and had to make a run to Wal Mart because one of the worst snowstorms in years had hit Tennessee and Kentucky.  The power was out for awhile and we were picking up things we needed to get through the storm. We were sitting at a red light and I sent Jose a text. I remember watching the light turn red as I texted him, “I love you.”  There was this instantly weird feeling in the pit of my stomach and I told my sister that something didn’t feel right. We returned to her house and were just hanging out inside because it was so cold outside. The FRG (Family Readiness Group) began sending emails that there were false notifications going around.  If someone were to inform you that your spouse had been killed we were told to call to verify. I remember joking with my sister that if it happened I would hurt them pretty bad for doing that. I am 5’4” and 102 pounds at the time there was only so much I could do so that wasn’t too serious of a threat (laughs). The entire time I was texting Josè and I still have those texts today.  I had texted him, “Hey, I’m sure you’re really busy. If you’re out on a mission I love you.” It just didn’t feel right because even if he was going out on a mission he always would text back, “Hey baby, I’m going out and I’ll talk to you when I get back in.” I think for me it was knowing he was going to answer so I would just keep texting him or maybe he didn’t hear his phone. It was my only hope.  

My sister and I were watching “The Bucket List.”  There is one specific part where Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman where they are talking to each other while lying in their hospital beds.  I was sitting there in my sisters oversized gray sweatpants and wearing a white muscle shirt. I had a pillow resting on my lap and was eating a bowl of spicy chicken ramen.  I had my laptop in front of me and thinking the entire time that something just didn’t feel right. My sister had been to a pawn shop that morning and I had the receipt from what she had pawned. She was just wanting to get rid of some random stuff.  I had this yellow receipt on the table in front of me and it was 1:30 in the morning when we heard a knock at the door. I knew that this couldn’t be good. I was standing in the kitchen holding Jamie because she had woken up. My sister opened the door but I couldn’t see because it was so dark.  I just heard them ask, “Are you Mrs. Regalado?” She answered that we both were. I saw that it was two men in their Class As. I couldn’t hear what they were saying except when they said my name. My sister turned to look over her shoulder at me. She opened the door a bit more and I put Jaimie down.  

I said to them, “Tell me.”  He walked in and gave his speech.  I actually still have the piece of paper he was reading off of.  He was very nervous because it was the first notification he had done.  I can still hear him saying, “The Secretary of the United States Army regrets to inform you that your husband, Jose Regalado, has been killed in action.” I remember as soon as he said that I just passed out.  When I came to, the chaplain was there and he told me that he had to finish the rest of the notification. I honestly don’t even remember what he said. The initial part was all I could remember. I just needed him to tell me that my husband was dead.  This was all just fluff and I needed to hear he was dead to make it real for me. He said, “Your husband was killed in action. I can’t tell you the details or what happened. You will have someone here in the morning to give you details of what to do moving forward.”  They left and sent me a text at six am that the Casualty Assistance Officer was coming to the house at nine am. He was this tall lanky guy with his newly-shined jump boots on and he had no idea what to do. He had just finished his class the day before and was fumbling over his paperwork.  It was at the point I was telling him it would be okay. I know he was trying hard to keep it together. There was a point where I found it funny that I was helping him through this more than the other way around. He was going through the checklist and asked about cremation or burial. I remember telling him that I didn’t know where he would be buried but that it would be mahogany and he would be in his Class A’s.  I just needed to know what happened next. He informed me that his body was being transported to Dover, Delaware. They would do the autopsy and then fly him home.

We went through it very quickly along with the benefits I would receive too. I didn’t care at that point.  There was not one part of me that was worried about the finances. We were struggling to pay bills but the last thing I was concerned with was how much Social Security and Life Insurance I would be getting.  As soon as he left, it was a scramble to figure out what to do next. I had to get myself ready along with my sister. There was this awkward feeling that I was preparing myself for my sister since her husband was over there too.  The guilt really hit because my mind was saying, “Why wasn’t it her husband?” They didn’t have kids and we’d just had a baby. We had to put everything on the credit cards but the Army kept telling me it was covered. They had told me all of the family travel expenses would be covered along with mine and my sisters.  The thing was they didn’t reimburse for any of that until weeks later. I just remember saying, “I don’t have any money. It’s going to have to go on the credit card.” My credit card maxed out and my sister had to pay for her flights. I ended up having to reimburse her later on. I flew out first and Jamie was really sick. I had one of Jose’s backpacks with me which had a lot of the things I would need in it.  I had no idea that they would have him fully prepared in brand new set of Class A’s. I had a garment bag full of his uniforms, shoes and ribbons. Southwest Airlines had told me I couldn’t take both the bag and the garment bag. I would need to pick one. I informed them I couldn’t be separated from either bag and they both needed to go with me. The lady told me the flight was full and they didn’t have room for both of the bags.  I remember breaking down and crying. I told her my husband had just died and this was all I had left of him. They were very accommodating after they learned this and everyone was crying on the flight. The entire time Jamie was crying and I just didn’t know what to do or how to handle it.

When I arrived in California, Jose’s parents picked me up and there isn’t much memory of that time.  I just let them take control and my sister took care of Jamie. I wasn’t eating and had lost about 20 pounds in the past two weeks.  I couldn’t sleep, couldn’t eat, and I was just going through the motions. I remember going and looking at funeral homes thinking I didn’t know how to choose one.  We ended up using one my family member had used previously. The funeral home choice needed to be made rather quickly so Dover could release his body. It was constantly about waking up and visiting different cemeteries.  My casualty officer was amazing. He took me to get a new military ID since you had to get one within 7 days of your spouse's death. I remember realizing I was no longer a wife but now a widow. The lady at the ID office told me, “Oh girl, don’t remarry because you will lose all your money.”  I remember thinking, “My husband died three days ago and I don’t really care about any of this.” I sat there and just cried. My casualty officer told me that we needed to get out of there and come back another day to take care of the details. I tried so hard to be optimistic and the constantly smiling person I had been up until this point.  I would try to joke about it all and cover my feelings with a mask. How do you talk about it when no one else had been through this? I couldn’t call one of my girlfriends and ask to talk about it. I was 20 years old and had no idea of what to do.

I would tell everyone, “I’m okay.”  I couldn’t tell you anything about Jamie for a couple of weeks because I wasn’t the one parenting her.  I left her with other people to take care of her. His dad took on the role of handling everything funeral wise.  I was responsible for picking out who the pallbearers were going to be and there was a lot of busy work. All of the rest of the details are just a blur to me.  The day of the funeral, the craziest thing happened. I had moved back to Kentucky and for some reason the morning of the funeral the mail came early that day. It never came early.  It always came after 3 o’clock in the afternoon. We had to leave at 10 o’clock in the morning for his services. The mail person came and I got the mail. The first piece I saw was a letter from Jose. It was dated the day he died. There was no reason for him to have mailed it to this address because I wasn’t even living there.  It had been almost a month and a half. For some reason that day he sent a letter to me at his parents house. I got it on the day of his funeral. I remember wondering if it was a joke and if he was even really dead. The one thing I remember before the funeral was the day we got his body back. That day for me was harder than the funeral.  There is a separate section at LAX and it’s where the smaller planes fly into. They had the firetrucks on the end of the runway doing the angel entrance. I wondered why they were doing it. I realized the flight was coming in and it was a small charter plane.

They began lowering the casket down and I just remember running towards it and draping my body over it.  This was the moment where it was solidified he was gone. They were trying to pull me away. It was time to go and get to the funeral home. The knowledge that I had to be separated from him again was so painful. It was definitely the hardest time because the funeral was surreal. I went through the motions of it. It was seeing the casket had made it real for me. The entire church service was in Spanish and I sat there not knowing what they were saying.  I couldn’t cry because I couldn’t understand the language. I just stared at his casket right next to me. It was the longest church service I had ever sat through. I had no idea where Jamie was during the funeral. When the services were done all of the Patriot Guardriders came up to give their condolences. They wanted to take a group photo and typical Sharri fashion I was in the middle smiling. It was this huge shit eating grin. I look back now and realize I was trying to mask what was going on inside.  

We went straight over to the cemetery and it was an abnormally hot day.  Jamie was running a fever. I remember getting into the limo and we didn’t know what to do.  Jose’s sister was sitting in there with us and said, “Did you know that your body doesn’t actually digest corn? Your body doesn’t have the enzyme needed to digest it. That is why it looks like you poop corn (laughs).”  I sat there and just laughed. It was the craziest thing for someone to talk about. This was such a typical thing for a teen to say to get people to laugh. When we got to the cemetery and watching them pull the casket out.  I walked past the crowd and our flight cases were sitting on tables with the “1-800 GO-ARMY” slogan on them. I thought, “How dare you be advertising at my husband’s funeral?” When I look back now, I realize that Jose was so proud of his service and he would’ve been proud to have the Army stuff there.

His death forced me to grow up and be the parent I needed to be.  His death ultimately made me get my shit together. I learned many lessons from this and it helped me to better understand the need for those lessons.  I told the people at the mortuary that I needed an hour with him by myself. They dropped me off at the chapel and I walked down the aisle to his casket half open.  I opened the bottom and saw that he didn’t have on shoes. This one thing would have driven Jose crazy because he could not stand to have his feet bare. I closed it back up.  One of the things I would do every night before we went to bed was kissing his cheek and trace his face with my finger down to his chin. I remember when he died laying in bed and tracing my finger along what would have been his profile.  I went to the funeral home and did that to his face knowing it would be the last time I would ever get to do that. I laughed while sitting there because Dover Delaware did a pretty shitty job fixing his hairline after his autopsy. He had a bad crease along his hairline and I thought his profile didn’t match his face.  

I sat there in the chair they brought me with my elbows propped up.  I just sat there talking to him and telling him about the room. The smell of the flowers was so overwhelming that it made me nauseous.  It was the first sense of me being aware that it was okay to step outside. I went outside and the lingering stench of flowers just made me feel incredibly sick.  It took me 9 years to be able to appreciate the smell of flowers. They didn’t represent beauty at all. They represented death. Everyone began showing up at the funeral and giving their condolences.  The music was playing in the background that I had chosen. It was all very typical church music that you would normally hear at a funeral. His sister and I had put a playlist together that included a song by the Dixie Chicks called “Traveling Soldier.”  When the playlist ended they brought in a band and I was holding Jamie in my lap. They began playing “CIrcle of Life” from The Lion King and I just began laughing. I was laughing that they were playing this song at my husband’s funeral because it was just so ridiculous.  People were wondering if I was having a breakdown. To tell you the truth, I was very much was on the verge of a nervous breakdown. They took me out so I could just cry.

My mom is not a nurturing or mushy mom.  She just wasn’t that way. I remember her coming back and just handing me a tissue.  It was all I needed at that point. I didn’t need words to be said. The funeral ended and I told everyone to come to my in-laws house to eat and have a good time.  I listened to his funeral playlist for at least two years after that. Music was a really big deal for me. I listened to it over and over. I felt like I had to. I moved back to Kentucky and was issued a new casualty officer.  I had gone through 5 of them from different states. They issued me someone who was soon to retire, Master Sergeant Ward. He came up to my door to meet me and he informed me we would get my husband’s stuff home. He told me I could call him at 2 o’clock in the morning that would be fine.  

The first thing I said to him was that I wanted him to be comfortable and I needed to be comfortable.  I didn’t want it to be in a sterile environment and I told him to not come in his Class A’s unless he really wanted to.  He pushed to get me all of Jose’s things back from Iraq because he had so much stuff. He had a box full of plastic bags that we had to count and document the contents.  If he wrote a letter every single day it had to be read and then documented. It was a lengthy process. He sat there with me when all 14 boxes came in and helped me document it all.  When he left I remember being upset that they washed all of his clothes because now they didn’t smell like him. When Master Sergeant Ward left I crawled inside one of the empty boxes and just covered up with his clothes.  I just didn’t know what to do. I had his stuff but I didn’t have him. I am not nostalgic and usually if I don’t see a reason for something I get rid of it.

I initially told myself that I couldn’t keep it all because it would keep me from moving forward.  I loaded stuff up and donated it. I had hopes that someone else could use the gear he had bought. I gave all of his clothes to his brother.  I pieced out his gear that he had purchased and told his guys I would be sending it to them. It would benefit them and not me. I would sort through his stuff through the years.  I wished I would have waited and not got rid of things so quickly. I did regret that. I wasn’t prepared to handle the grief with his things around. We went from 14 tough boxes down to 6 tough boxes.  I gave his parents most of it because I didn’t feel like I was in a place to hold on to it. If Jamie ever wanted to know anything she could go over to their house and look through it. It was over time that this box is ultimately what ending up representing Jose.  I have all the letters that I wrote to Jose over deployment.

Josè was carrying this image of his daughter when he was killed. The upper left of the photo is where the bullet struck him, leaving him quickly incapacitated.

What was the hardest part of moving on with your life after Jose passed away?

SR: The hardest part after Jose’s death was knowing that I would have to be raising Jaimie on my own and not knowing how to do that.  How do I raise her so that she would know who her dad was? How would I balance being a single parent and a widow? I didn’t know who I was.  I had quit school and had no idea what I wanted to do. The hardest part was figuring out how to raise this little girl all on my own.  It was really hard dealing with the loss because I’m a person who doesn't like to show emotions.  I hide my feelings and mask pain pretty well. I ended up moving on quickly and thought if I started dating someone that the void of being alone would be filled.  I got into a relationship with someone who didn’t have my best interests at heart. It took me a bit to realize that was what was going on because I wanted to get back to normal so badly.  I was willing to accept something that was not a safe relationship. During that time I was constantly telling myself that things could be worse and could be dealing with a dead spouse. I dated this person for about three and a half years and during that time he took part of Josè’s Life Insurance Policy to supposedly start a business.  I did not approve of this at all or say he could do it. He had access to my bank account and took $60,000 from me. It was then I realized he did not have my best interests at heart and I left him. The entire three years I kept telling myself that everything would be okay and work out. I had put myself in the position of getting hurt.  I hid behind a relationship that brought me nothing but grief.

What advice would you give to wives who had experienced similar things?

SR:  If I was giving advice to someone who’d just lost a loved one I’d say, “Take it slow.”  I wish I would have been able to understand that emotions change so quickly. You can go from one moment of feeling alone to feeling like you have it all under control.  I masked those emotions for so long until I didn’t know how I truly felt. Take time to understand the changes. If you need to cry then cry. It’s okay to be happy as well.  I had to learn to grasp that being happy is an emotion too and I had tried to force it. I was hard on myself for wanting to feel happy. When I ordered Josè’s autopsy photos I kept them to remind myself when I was feeling happy that this was the reality.  I would go back and look at them because it took me back. I felt like I was leaving Jose behind when I was moving forward. I would sit and watch war movies and they would make me really sad. These photos would make me sob because I didn’t want to be too happy since Josè was never coming home.

It’s all about time.  The one thing that people need to be aware of is judging.  If a widow starts dating right away they are so quick to judge.  She’s promiscuous, she didn’t really love her husband but we are the same as anyone else we just want to feel loved.  It’s a sad situation and we want to be taken care of. There is such a strong sense of loss and we want that person to take over and just tell us it’s going to be okay. I think most people fail to realize that.  We are just normal everyday people and human. We now a title of “Gold Star Widow” and you have this legacy to carry around with you. It gets heavy because you know people are watching and looking at you closely.  It’s almost an aura where you carry on your husbands name and people judge him based on your actions. This was very hard since I didn’t know what I wanted. I drank a lot of wine in the shower (laughs). People would look at me with the, “How dare you make mistakes?” look on their faces.  You now have this title of being a Gold Star Wife/Widow and nobody saw me trying to figure out this new life I had been thrown into. You don’t receive a handbook when your loved one dies, on how to do things.  I know women who waited for two or three years to get into a new relationship and were still scrutinized over it. You are damned if you do and damned if you don’t. You will make mistakes and someone is going to hate you for it.

What are the joys of parenting for you now with two kids?

SR: There is a certain joy in knowing that I raised my kids in a much different way than the way I grew up.  I knew that the one thing that came from me having a horrible life as a child was I could give my own kids an incredible upbringing.  It important to see that all the troubles I went through as a kid can be used as a guide to make my own kid’s lives better.

What are you doing in your current occupation?

SR:  I currently work with students who are on the autism, aspergers, OCD, and other issues.  Our school is a very small private school where everyone has to take on various roles. I run an administrative aspect of the school as well as being the health aide.  I can jump into our girl group when we are discussing nutrition and food. There are many of the students that have food aversions and don’t understand why they have to eat certain foods.  We talk about their bodies and health with them as well. The crazy thing is that some of the students have parents on the same spectrum as well.

The topics we cover with them aren’t generally going to be discussed at home with the children due to that.  I provide some of those answers that they may not get at home. All of the students understand that they have autism since we talk about at school.  We don’t want them to feel different about themselves in a bad way. Some of the students have come from a public school setting where they have been shamed for having autism.  When they come here we don’t harp on their autism because we don’t want them to feel like that’s their identity. We help them understand the issue and move on immediately.

How has your life in the past prepared you for what you are doing now?

SR:  It’s taught me to understand that we all go through so many different things in our life.  Our kids have been through traumatic experiences and will sometimes cause them to slow down a little bit.  There are times when we have kids who are very aggressive and I know how they feel. I felt that way as a child often.  They were so quick to judge and shut me down instead of helping me work through my emotions. Even later in life I’ve struggled with that.  It would have been so much better if people would’ve just asked me if I wanted to talk about Jose. It has taught me to slow down and understand they have issues at home.  I don’t judge quickly because of my own experiences.

I have never had this crazy aspiration to make 6 figures or be away for my kids with a high paying career.  I wanted to do something that was healthy. I didn’t care if it was nutrition or fitness. I had an eating disorder because of my upbringing.  I was able to understand what I was doing to my body early on and changed what I as doing. I know that not everyone else has the same thought process of being able to stop an addiction so quickly.  When Jose died I understood that I had some benefits but not the full of extent of school and college. I was raising Jaimie on my own and going back to school was not my focus. I didn’t have the plan of going back and getting my degree at the time.  I just wanted to raise my baby. I eventually did go back to school and majored in Healthy Lifestyle Coaching. It encompassed everything. This could help people with eating disorders, food addictions, and so many more health issues. Josè’s death pushed me into having to stop and think about who I really was.  When I was with him my whole focus was my husband and I were on the back burner. After he died and I moved on from the toxic relationship I knew it was time for me to focus on me. I wanted Jaimie to have something positive to look forward to as well.


How do you want people to remember you?

SR: The way I see it is if I can make a positive impact on one single person I don’t need people to make a public display about me.  I love the spotlight because speaking to people is great. When I help people I don’t want it because I don’t feel like I deserve that part of it.  When I am gone one day if there is one person who can say that, “Sharri helped me” that is my hope. If it’s a small thing it doesn’t matter. One small thing can impact people and change them for the better.  People often fail to realize that what they do can impact others around them even if it’s small. They go throughout their lives being selfish when there are small acts of kindness that can be done.

Can you talk about being married again?

SR: When I met Nate it was completely unexpected and didn’t want to be in a relationship.  I think in the back of my mind there was the thought that something could happen to him.  I wasn’t sure if I wanted to put myself in the position of losing another loved one like that.  I was a really good Army wife and very able to hold my own when deployments came around. I knew that if I ever remarried it would be back into the military, otherwise it would feel like a waste.  I have this ability to be a good military wife and I think that’s rare. I had come to the realization that I was okay with being single for the rest of my life. Nate and I met on Tinder and instantly when I saw him felt something.  I sent him a message when I first saw his profile and he ignored it. My response was, “Fine, I’m done.” I closed out of Tinder and deleted it for 6 months. I turned it back on and he sent me a message. When we started talking it was instant chemistry.  I knew he was military by his picture.

When I actually met him I remember a similar feeling of “this is where I am supposed to be.”  I had dated in between him and Jose dying and never felt that kind of spark. The moment I met Nate I knew I was going to marry him.  We went out on our date and I was so nervous I stumbled over my words. He made me nervous because I knew that there was something special about him.  When we were coming back from our first date I had to tell myself to not text him or ask for a second date. I needed to let him do it. While I was saying this to myself he texted me and that was it.  There was never a day that we didn’t talk at least three or four hours. It was completely unexpected because I didn’t want to fall for anyone. The first time I had done that I got hurt badly. Nate has really put himself into a place that I could handle on my own if the roles were reversed.  The sense of “I wasn’t your first love and wasn’t your first husband.” I know he thought, “There is a little girl who looks just like her dad and I can't fill that role.” Our very first date he told me he understood that I had a little girl and he didn’t take my husband's death lightly. He said he wanted to honor my husband and know that it was okay to cry if I needed to.  He took on a major burden, although he doesn't see it that way.

Without some sense of faith or foundation, life almost appears to be completely random in its direction. Some people seemingly experience more tragedy than others, some prosper, some find struggle at every turn, while others thrive. Experientially, Sharri’s path has served as a reminder of how a positive outlook and the light that stems from that place can overcome the darkest of our experiences. Those experiences as a youth are often traumatically scarring, and the cycle of that an almost assured entropic journey headed towards certain disaster. Instead, Sharri flew forth from those smoldering ashes and has forged her own destiny; becoming the change she’s always desired. Those dreams must’ve felt so distant as a youth, yet she never lost hold of hope. A mother’s imprisonment, a non-existent father, her only love struck down in the prime of his life, and still, she fought forward with furious courage. We can all learn something from Sharri’s story. The takeaway is your own to decide, but something is there for you to harvest and gather.

Tim KComment
The Barron Family (Silver Star)

The world of a caregiver is so remarkably different than that of a veteran returning home.  It’s almost unfair to juxtapose the two, as this most definitely dilutes the truths and realities faced by both communities.  Unfortunately, it seems as though the caregiver’s story is often told as a subset of his or her veteran family member in a way that enfolds it almost as an afterthought.  Every individual’s experience, within both populations, is completely unique and that was Debbie Barron’s reality when she received the call no wife ever wants to respond to.  At 19 years old, Debbie had just met and wed the love of her life, a 20 year old young Marine named Josue. Little did Josue know, the night he first laid awe-struck eyes on Debbie at that Bell Gardens (LA) Mexican Restaurant, he was meeting the mother of his future children and his saving grace throughout a time of tumultuous physical and mental terror.  Later, when Debbie did receive that notification from officials with the Marines, she braced herself for a destiny only describable as uncertain. But, her love was not something that could be constrained to the bounds of some definable faction of rules or ideas of what compassion “should” look like. To describe her as resilient would be a ghastly underestimation of Debbie’s whole character and selflessness.  

The self-ascribed “Mamà Latina’s” voyage has been a pilgrimage of empathy and understanding fraught with lessons that no academic institution could ever hope to teach.  Lessons learned on those tempestuous waters of a life of young love and indescribable angst, were bolstered by magnificent moments of rebirth and regeneration. Although it’s almost indisputable that Debbie could’ve slept better without many of those trials, ask the mother of three now and she’d undoubtedly say she wouldn’t trade her present place for any amount of material wealth.  Debbie and Josue have cultivated an environment that places family above all else, even within a storm of irresolution that came as a result of Josue’s injuries. Their dedication is admirable in a culture encapsulated in stories of fairy tale narratives rife with little real-world backing. They stand as a genuine example of young love at its finest, a magnificent display of selflessness, sacrifice, and tender devotion.  But, let’s hear the story from the woman who knows it better than anyone. We’ll let Debbie tell you the rest.

Where did you grow up?

DB: I grew up in Southern California in Rialto and West LA. I went back and forth from my mom’s house to my dad’s house. I remember growing up with my sisters and splitting my time between my mom and sister’s, and my dad who lived in Los Angeles.

What do you think was most important in your childhood that prepared you the most for life as a caregiver?  

DB: I believe growing up in a broken home actually molded my attitude and perspective towards caring for others. I’m not resistant to, or affected by change, but I am also self-willed and understanding.

How did you meet Josue?  

DB: I met Josue at a Mexican restaurant in Bell Gardens. He had one of his friends approach me and I denied him instantly. I gave him my number after I caught a glimpse of his embarrassed smile though (laughs). It was also his 20th birthday. I was attracted to his shy, mysterious, and bad boy demeanor.

Can you talk about when he first left for deployment?   

DB: Josue and I were so young, when he left for his first combat deployment. His first actual deployment was a MEU. I don’t think either of us knew what to expect nor understood the seriousness of it. We just knew we were going to be apart for a long time. One week into the deployment I was already a complete mess and I missed him so much. I would spend most of my days at his mom’s house where I felt his presence the most. By the third week I thought, “How the hell am I supposed to survive six more months?”

What do you remember about him being injured and receiving that call?  

DB: I was getting ready to head out for the day when I received a call from a government caller ID and I thought it was Josue. I was so excited and surprised to hear from him again so soon as I’d just spoken to him the day before. As soon as I heard the strange voice on the other line say, “Is this Mrs. Barron?” my heart sank to the pit of my stomach and I instantly felt out of body. The man on the phone said he was waiting for me at my place of residence, but they were actually at the wrong address. After sorting it out and meeting two men in uniform my fears were escalated, and I felt  that the news I was going to hear was the confirmation of his death. My husband had died at war. I kept thinking about that and I think even saying it out loud. They told me that in actuality he stepped on an IED and was severely injured. I didn’t understand though. He was alive? They told me he was hurt, but they weren’t sure if he would survive his injuries. I met him at the Bethesda Naval Hospital in Maryland 72 hours after receiving the news, never speaking to him before that. I remember waiting and not knowing what to expect.

Who helped you the most through that time when you first found out?

DB: My good friend, and wife of a Marine who was also injured just a week before Josue helped me so much. During that time we shared information and would confide in each other for the next couple years to come. She was the only person who really truly understood my thoughts and concerns without me ever having to justify myself.

How did you best prepare yourself to see him after he was first injured?

DB: I didn’t know what to expect when I first saw him. I guess in my naive mind I thought I would see him in a hospital bed with a few bumps and bruises. I thought to myself we would be on our way home after a few days. I remember being stopped in the doorway by his ICU doctor. He told me that if I felt nauseous or dizzy that I shouldn’t feel bad and should step outside for a breather.

What have you seen from Josue since the injury and how have you seen him grow?

DB: I’ve seen Josue’s determination and resiliency after questioning life and God. Now he appreciates life in a different way. He wants to serve and help others any chance he gets.  

What do you love the most about Josue as a husband?

DB: Josue has always been aware of the emotional and physical burden his injury caused or could have caused me. He’s never left me alone or made me feel isolated in dealing with everything. He’s always been concerned with my self-care and mental health. At the hospital he would say things like, “Please go eat, please go shower, please take a nap, or go explore the city and get out of this hospital. I’ll be okay and I’ll be here when you get back.” He is a loving, loyal and caring husband.    

What are the most important traits that a caregiver can have?  

DB: It’s important to be direct and outspoken in order to advocate for the person you are caring for. It’s also vital that you’re empathetic of your loved one in order to help understand the things you might not normally comprehend. And, you definitely need to be patient. Everything takes time, and especially with the VA (laughs).

What would you tell civilians that might help them better understand the role of a caregiver?

DB: I’d say, from my experience, that friends of caregivers should check in on that caregiver and ask how they are doing. Being acknowledged and appreciated goes a long way. When Josue was first injured and going through rehab, I was expected to be up early to take him to formation and after that to every appointment. I would get asked about his medical conditions, as well as his routine and progress. I would remember the names of dozens of medications and the times that they had to be given. He would tell me his fears and about his pain and I would talk him through it every day for weeks, even months sometimes. It was exhausting mentally, physically and emotionally. A lot of times, I needed someone to fill in for me, and force me to take a break or ask me how I was doing.

What are your own personal goals currently?

DB: Right now, my main focus is my children. My never ending goal is to be the best mom I can be and raise good humans. Secondarily, my goal is to grow my online business and blog.

What have you learned the most in motherhood?  

DB: I’ve learned that everyday is an adventure when you’re a mom. It’s a big, beautiful adventure (laughs). It’s taught me to be aware of my thoughts, my actions and that every choice has repercussions in this world. I have learned to think outside of myself and to spread love as much as possible. Motherhood has taught me profound patience and compassion.

What’s the most difficult part about being a mom?

DB: The most difficult part of being a mom is the feeling at the end of the day where you wonder if you did the best you could do. That leads into wondering how you could have handled a situation differently or better. There’s always the thought that maybe something you did or said could affect your child emotionally or mold his or her behavior or characteristics, in a negative manner. I would never want them to be mean, angry or hurtful human beings.

What’s the most rewarding part?

DB: It’s very rewarding when my child does or says something to prove that my worn out feelings at the end of the day, are nonsense. For instance, when they say, “Please, thank you, you’re welcome, and excuse me,” on a daily basis. When my sons pick flowers for me, or when they tell a complete stranger that they are beautiful. Nothing is more wonderful than raising kind human beings.

How does Josue being injured change your role as a mom?

DB: With our first born, we didn’t know what to expect as new parents with a newborn. I prepared myself mentally to have to do a lot more because we thought maybe Josue wouldn’t be able to do some things with his disability. My role as a mom is just like any other though. Josue has adapted as a father with a physical disability and we share our parenting roles and responsibilities 100%.

How much has the veteran/caregiver community helped your family?

DB: Before his injury we were not aware of the veteran community and the various hubs that existed around that community. It wasn’t until he got injured that other family members of wounded veterans and non-profits starting reaching out to us. We had no idea any of it existed or that so many people cared. There were so many people that were grateful for his service and sacrifice as well as many non-profits that wanted to help fill in the gaps. The veteran community and camaraderie is what has helped us heal and adapt. We’re forever grateful for their support and generosity. Many of these groups have become like family to us.

What would you tell women or men that were just becoming caregivers for a wounded serviceman/servicewoman?  

DB: I feel like it’s become a weird sort of trend within the younger generation of veterans, and becoming a caregiver is some strange sort of goal. It’s not. It’s not a title you give yourself or aspire to be. It’s more than just answering a questionnaire for the title and VA benefits. It’s something that you do out of extremely unfortunate circumstances without even knowing that you’re doing it, or without anyone having to tell you to do it. I would tell new caregivers to be strong-willed with a goal or plan that you and your service member agree upon. It’s very important to work on those goals together. It’s too easy to get lost in a self-pity party.  

What are you looking forward to in the future?  

DB: In the future, I look forward to watching my kids grow and traveling with them and my husband.

You have a blog that you’re pretty passionate about.  What got you into blogging and what’s the blog about?

DB: I’ve been off and on for a few years, and I currently just published the blog on the website. But, my main purpose has been to share my experiences as a wife and mom. I love curating photos and helping others in this space.  

Can you talk about your culture and what you love the most about your culture?  Are there things you can see improving about your culture?

DB: My parents are Mexican and Salvadorian immigrants. The two cultures are very distinct from each other, but also very similar. I love everything about the two including the food, the music, the history, and my people. Everything influences something else so it’s hard to pick one, single thing. I love being multicultural.

Tell me about your business and your blog.  Why is this work important to you?

DB: I took a few courses in multi-media a few years ago and I’ve always been a little tech savvy, so to challenge and express myself I would design blogs. I see it as a kind of blank  piece of paper where I can create from my own ideas. I’m not the best at creative writing though, so i struggle to publish my posts because I second guess a lot of it. But, I enjoy curating the photos and pages. I’m currently working on my blog, where my goal is to share my experiences as a wife and as a “cool mom.” I want to share the trendiest and most instagram-able family friendly places in SoCal (say that fast 5 times haha) and deliver reviews on baby products. However, I’ve also created three online businesses over the last 5-ish years. The first one was a fashion boutique. It’s no longer open, but I learned a lot about how to start and run an online business. I’m currently running a baby boutique and a party rental business. They’re both doing really well.

How do you want people to remember Debbie Barron?  

DB: I want people to remember me most of all as a devoted wife and mom.

Friendship, even the act of maintaining that tender relational core, can be a delicate balance. Take that up 100 notches into a marriage and a marriage with some of the most difficult circumstances a young couple could imagine. This is the world that Debbie has occupied for close to a decade, and she thrives in that environment. As you can probably tell by her tone throughout the blog, she truly believes that she was born for such tremendous responsibility. Who could possibly plan for a young marriage planted in tumultuous soil? Yet, Mrs. Barron not only took on her role graciously as it came, but implanted herself as Josue’s ferocious advocate. That same incessant zeal has led to courageous, faithful service as Josue’s companion and the mother of three handsome boys. That passion has also followed her in an increasingly successful journey as a blossoming small business owner and creative blog author. While it’s increasingly important to remember and memorialize the sacrifices of our nation’s veterans, it’s also vital that we remember those families who served in their own capacity. Stories like Debbie’s are stark reminders of the trials faced by families young and old, in the caregiver space. It’s not just a reminder of tragic sacrifice, but a display of perpetual vigilance and overcoming even the harshest of circumstances. Mrs. Barron’s tale is a stunning testament to the strength of unconditional love and faithful service.

We’d like to thank Debbie for sharing her powerful story, and even more so for her fortitude in service to family. If you’d like to continue to follow Debbie and her family’s journey (you really should), check out her Instagram: @debbiebarrondaily and her website:

The Jernigan Family (Silver Star)

Kim Jernigan probably never imagined her life in its’ present format. Who could? Taking care of a warrior who gave up his vision (literally) in service of the Marine Corps probably wasn’t a position she could’ve ever imagined she’d be in. Still, if you asked her now she’d proudly proclaim that she has indeed found her calling. She’d probably even tell you she’s dedicated her life to Michael Jernigan. It’s hard for many to imagine living such a selfless existence but this is Kim’s reality, and she shines the brightest of all when times are at their most adverse. There are quite a few commonalities between the veteran community and that of the caregivers. Selflessness is an identifier that ties the two groups together in beautifully succinct harmony. Michael and Kim have both learned the wondrous value of that word, harmony. They move in symbiotic step together through life, Kim being Michael’s vision, his bright light in a dark place. Kim spoke openly and sincerely about what brought her to this place, what grew her into this testament of legitimate sacrifice. It’s a ravishing image. Michael tragically giving up his eyes for his beloved Corps, and Kim steps in to bear a portion of that weight and loss.

Still, we must get to the innermost core of who Kim is and where that sense of selflessness developed. Much of her life, including the early death of her mother, has been about overcoming the odds and forging her own path. That’s irrefutably appropriate when you look at her husband’s service to the United States Marine Corps. In many ways, Kim represents those Corps traits in her own life. Something that kept coming up in our interview were those values: honor, courage, and commitment. Her honor always preserved in the way she is a credit to Michael’s impeccable service to our nation. Her courage is ever-present in taking on those barriers that are a constant part of living with Michael’s injuries. Her commitment is undeniable in her daily service to Michael and organizations that they stand behind. Here’s Kim with a look into the life of a Silver Star wife.

What was your life like growing up?

KJ:  I grew up in southern California in Downey.  I’m a SoCal girl. We didn’t have a lot of money growing up.  We stood out and I was bullied quite a bit because of that.  There were circumstances I had no control over as a child. It was hard but I had a good life.  There is nothing about my childhood that I could say my parents didn’t do all that they could. That’s what matters.

How did that help prepare you for life?

KJ:  It taught me to always be humbled and kind. Life can be unpredictable and you should be thankful for every moment. I think we all have different limitations or circumstances in life that we don’t always have control over, so it’s best to not allow those things to take away happiness. My parents, especially my mom always taught us to let the bad roll off your shoulders and to focus on the good. So in life I focus on the positive and remain true to who I am, it’s not always that easy, but what is?

Do you think that impacted your place now and where you stand?

KJ: We didn’t have a life of luxury but it made me who I am today.  I don’t take life or any moment for granted. I appreciate every opportunity that is presented to me and I try to never get big-headed.  There are strong people that fall sometimes even at the top of their game. You can never be too proud to humble yourself in the moment. There will be times when you may have to cut coupons and go to a less expensive grocery store or budget.  You may have chicken instead of steak for dinner and that’s nothing to be ashamed of. When life kicks your ass if your pride gets in your way you won’t bounce back from that. You will succumb to your own inability to improvise, adapt and overcome.

What do you remember about your mother?

KJ:  My mom was Mother Teresa to me.  She is who I aspire to be. In the beginning she was making $9.00 an hour with her company and she worked her way to the top to become part owner of it.  In 2007 on New Years I found out my mom was in the hospital. She wasn’t feeling well so I went to the hospital to spend time with her. Her abdomen was huge like a basketball and filled with air.  It was 11 hours later they did an emergency surgery because her bowels were cut. We sat there for quite some time. They were wheeling my mom off to surgery and she told me to go home and that she would be fine.  She always said that to me. I said to her, “Shut up mom, I will be here the whole time. I love you.” She came out of surgery and went straight into recovery. The doctors told us it was a successful surgery and I had gone home to get some rest.  I was thinking that the next day she would be in a regular room. I bought her popcorn, diet coke, balloons, flowers, and all of her favorite things to take to her the next day. It was very scary because I just couldn’t imagine this happening to my mom.  I got there and she was on life support. I slept on the floor in the ICU waiting room until January 17th when they took her off life support. It taught me to always be humbled and kind. Life can be unpredictable and you should be thankful for every moment.  My mom was the best this world has to offer. She always loved without fear and welcomed everyone into her life with open arms. She was someone everyone knew they could rely on and come to in a time of need. My mom and dad were best friends and truly loved each other.

How’d you meet Michael?

KJ:  A mutual friend introduced us.  I met Michael post combat and immediately fell in love with his beautiful mind. There is so much more beauty than what you see with your eyes.  Do I wish my husband could see? You bet, every single day of my life. Do I cry several times a week because my heart hurts for him? You bet. When you go to war not everybody is going to be a KIA or have those invisible wounds.  There are those that wounds that are visible and in your face. This is the cost of freedom. I don’t ever have to ask myself what the cost of freedom is because I live with him. It was my husband's freedom and independence. That is reality.  There is no making it glamorous. It is what it is.

It’s a hard reality and we have to live with it. We wake up with it every single day. I would give every limb on my body for Michael to have just one eye. I can get new limbs but he can’t ever have eyesight. They will never be able to give him his vision back.  We know people who have lost multiple limbs but would choose that over eyesight. Eyesight is the worst thing to lose. Imagine yourself trying to navigate around your house in the dark and trust you remember where things are. Michael has to do that every day. I get everything done in the house for a reason and it’s not OCD. The structure and order makes Michael safe plus it allows him to retain some independence.  I get up early in order to do that for him and will until the day I die.

What was the hardest thing with getting used to Michael's wounds?

KJ:  It was not that hard, but there have been moments. The hardest thing was just seeing how badly wounded he was. The hardest thing was just seeing how badly wounded he was but we realize how lucky he is here today. Everyday I wish I could take Michael’s pain away and give him his independence back but I can’t, He will always be blind and his other injuries will always affect him. Everyday I wish I could take Michael’s pain away and give him his independence back but I can’t, He will always be blind and his other injuries will always affect him. There are times when I wish I could change it for him and I simply can’t. We’re just thankful he’s alive, healthy and thriving.

Was it tough getting to where you are today?

KJ: It wasn’t tough.  It took patience. Michael will tell you I have the patience of a saint (laughs).  I think I do because I exude it in all things. There is never a time when I feel rushed.  Why would I rush through life to die? I don’t speed while driving (laughs). I’m not in a race with anyone.  We all rush around way too much these days. I think because I am very laid back, calm, and patient that makes it easy.  There are difficulties in moments where I have a lot to do. I have to check myself because I want to make sure he is doing as much as he can.  I don’t want to take anymore away from him. One of the most common things I hear about is they get bitter. There is this extreme bitterness towards their veterans.  When you are a caregiver and that is what you do day in and day out there are needs you have that aren’t met. I think I have been lucky because that has never happened to me.  Michael and I just go together. We just mesh like the perfect pair of shoes you never want to let go of. We were married in April of 2017.  We didn’t rush anything and had a very laid back wedding.  Our wedding was in a cigar factory, The last working cigar factories in America.  We had twenty people and it was very low key. It was just like us.

What is the best thing about that love?

KJ: We laugh.  Michael and I never get tired of each others’ company.  We truly enjoy spending moments together and have a great friendship with each other.  I love his mind and the fact that we talk about absolutely anything with one another. Our communication is the best thing we have hands down.  There are so many people that misinterpret, take things out of context and we never do that. We are slow with our words and very open with each other.  We respect each other.

What advice would you give to someone who is a new caregiver?

KJ:  I would tell them to pay attention to the 90/10 rule.  Ninety percent of the time you better have it together and make sure everything is on point.  It’s always better if you do it with a smile too. If you can get to the point where you smile and laugh without effort,  it’s a beautiful thing. Ten percent of the time you need to allow yourself to cry, be mad, be hurt or be whatever emotion you need to be.  The ninety percent of the time you need to be together. Your warrior depends on it. I always tell Michael that you cannot be 100 percent all the time or it will drive you insane.

If I have a moment of frustration or something bothering me, I just tell him I need a moment. He respects me, gives me my moment and we move on. You have to communicate and not bottle things up.  I believe that telling them what’s wrong helps the situation instead of bottling it up. You must verbally communicate every single part of it. This what builds a strong relationship and it’s uncomfortable at times but necessary.  There are times when he is talking about things he doesn’t want to share with me but knows it’s important to be open. It wasn’t easy to get to our level of communication but eventually we broke that barrier and that was a relief.

What advice would you give to get someone to open up and communicate?

KJ: I think there was so much that was just natural for us.  I do believe that people judge too much. I never judged Michael, even on some of the darkest days.  I never did. I never let him see me crying because I needed to be strong for him. People need to be their partners best friend and support them.  One way to get them to open up be the light is to just not push it but genuinely tell them they are there for them. In 2016 Michael had a difficult time with dealing with combat issues and that was the year it all came to a head.  His main thought was, “Why me?” This is question every injured person asks.  If they talk to you just stop talking and listen. When they open up and talk to you, sit there and listen.  You will get to the point where you can give advice to them but at first just sit and listen. They don’t need a problem solver.  They need someone who actually listens to them.

Michael, Kim, Max Martini (13 hours), David Brandon (former Navy SEAL, actor), and Robert Irvine (Chef) at Skyball.

What is your release for yourself?

KJ: I don’t have much down time.  What is that (laughs)? I volunteer and get involved in different areas.  I find great enjoyment in cleaning and getting my house squared away. My down time is making Christmas gifts with the holidays coming up.  This is my most favorite time of the year. Each year we take different Christmas items and donate them to multiple families because everyone deserves a Christmas. Michael and I also do things throughout the year for people who are homeless or just having a streak of bad luck.

What is the most rewarding part of being a caregiver?

KJ: My husband is no longer on any medication through the VA that is mood altering.  He doesn't take antidepressants or sleep aid. This is my moment when I sit and think about it.  That’s when I know we did it. Michael has a traumatic brain injury, PTSD, has a list of things wrong and was diagnosed with epilepsy just last year.  All of those things and he isn’t taking any of those terrible pills anymore. I encourage people to not rely and take unnecessary meds. You can’t do that though if your home life isn’t solid.  It’s a day to day effort.

Sometimes life is hard and he doesn't get to “see” the beauty of it.  I make life and moments beautiful for him. I make them bigger than what they are depending on the situation and how Michael is doing that day. When he smiles, it makes everything worth it. Caregiver work isn’t for everybody.  There are more that work now and are no longer a caregiver because they couldn’t do it. It takes a special type of person. I pray everyone finds that special person. You will either sink or swim in the situation you face. I know some really good swimmers and they are some amazing women.  Their veterans wouldn’t be where they are today without them.

When you moved from Florida was the transition tough?

KJ: It was very tough. We lived where Michael grew up and he knew that.  He could tell you how to get home in three different directions. He just memorized it all.  It was very difficult because the Dallas-Fort Worth area is huge. I don’t even know where I’m going 90 percent of the time.  He has no idea where we are unless I am verbally telling him. He had to learn a new house and our comfort zone had to change.  We had a local American Legion we went to all the time and that was a true place of comfort for him but now we don’t have that.

Why did you move to Texas?

KJ: Michael is a professional speaker and does a lot of events in the state of Texas for us. It just made sense to move here. We will be here for a couple of years and then move to where we want to plant some roots.

Is it hard getting used to the new house?

KJ: I walk Michael through our new house and tell him where things are.  He has to bump into things and learn where everything is at. He’ll learn which way is which.  In our old American Legion Michael would know how to get anywhere in there. He could go to the bathroom and people would sit there wanting to help him.  They didn’t want to see him bump into things. They would ask me if he needed help and I would say no. It wasn’t because he doesn't appreciate the help but he has to learn through trial and error.  He would bump the chair and learn the chair was there. He isn’t glass and won’t break. Part of learning is acquiring some bruises along the way (laughs). It’s hard to watch Michael learn through trial and error but I know it’s the best way sometimes.   

What are your future goals?

KJ: Our goals are to continue to help others in any way that we can.  Whether it be with the resources that we have or dedicating our time.  We want to continue to bring awareness to the obvious difference of the “Michaels” as opposed to other combat wounded veterans.  We want to change the legislation on that someday. That is a very big goal of ours. We want to never stop fighting. There are so many that went over there and our obligation is to do everything we can for those who come home wounded.  It has been 14 years since my husband was hit but that doesn't mean that the fight is over. The Marines will always be a part of our lives and that will never change.

What does it mean to you to have that attachment to the Marines?

KJ: I think it is the mentality of, “Once a Marine always a Marine”.  This rings true so much even with WWII Marines. They have such pride and joy in serving their country.  That feeling never leaves them. There will always be a piece of them still in the war. There will forever be a piece of Michael in Iraq.  I love the Marine Corps and what they stand for. I love the character development they instill when they step onto those yellow footprints. It’s very rare to meet a Marine that doesn’t have integrity and honor.  They have commitment to others still even after they are no longer in the Corps. Honor, Courage, Commitment is their code. “Improvise, adapt and overcome,” are qualities that stay with them consistently. Our lives are about all of those things.  Those three pillars get us through our lives every single day.

Can you talk about some of the organizations that have really benefited you and who you’ve enjoyed working with the most?

KJ: There have been several really good ones that have helped us out.  Semper Fi Fund, Air Power Foundation, and Veteran Airlift Command and a few more have always been there for us when needed.

What do you think could be improved with some of these organization that aren’t doing it right?  

KJ: We’ve dealt with a lot of organizations but there are a laundry list of what organizations can do better (laughs).  There is a rather large disconnect between military and caregivers when it comes to non-profit organizations. It’s rare that they know how to overlap and help both people.  So many focus primarily on the veterans but they don’t realize that the caregiver is going to be the reason that veteran thrives post-combat. There is never enough acknowledgment or recognition for our nation’s caregivers.  They actively, every single day, give their veteran the best possible life they can. I’ve had people tell me nasty things like, “What you do isn’t that difficult.” They just assume it’s a natural role and that it’s something you just do naturally, when realistically it’s one of the toughest things you’ll ever do.  A lot of people have opinions with no real understanding.

What do you think our culture can do better from your perspective?

KJ: I think sadly enough stupidity gets equal airtime nowadays.  It’s possible that it’s given even more attention than what’s considered normal.  It’s great to be different but now doing things outside of the norm means acting selfishly or being an ass just for attention.  That brings more attention. Unfortunately, I think some of that has leaked into the veteran sphere where guys are being rewarded for being clowns.  Those things get the most views and most attention so even guys that normally wouldn’t have behaved like that, are now behaving that way to get attention.  That’s unfortunate. Everyone has to have a phone, take a picture, “snap” something instead of being in the moment. It’s the new generation.

I see a lot of competition between these guys as well where they’re actively putting each other down or slamming someone for their service or lack thereof.  Of course, it’s not all of them. I see plenty of guys acting right but it’s definitely a difference between this generation of veterans and the older generations.  “You haven’t deployed as much as I have. You were a reservist. You went when there wasn’t that much action.” Those are some of the ways I’ve seen guys put each other down and it’s just sad.  Be better than that. The kicker there is some of those same guys are the guys exaggerating their service to make themselves look better. Lift each other up and be proud of your collective service, but that probably won’t happen like I wish.

What have you seen that you’ve liked the most from the veteran community?  

KJ: The Marines, of course (laughs).  Can I be biased? Also, there’s a common knowledge between veterans where they know what it’s like.  They know what it’s like to have a bad day and what that really means. Veterans have a love for this country that is admirable and I enjoy moments when I witness their patriotism.

What can improve in the caregiver community?  

KJ: There are certain organizations that offer retreats to caregivers and that’s nice of them.  However, I feel that these groups need to be more exclusive to certain caregivers. Michael is blind so I can’t relate as well to caregivers that are dealing with other issues.  It would be nice to be in a group, even if it’s small, of other caregivers handling blind veterans. It’s just harder to open up to other caregivers when they don’t get what you’re going through.  I’d like more group specific outings. There need to be more resources and help. I feel like unless you fit a certain mold or make or what you see on T.V. you kind of get pushed aside in the wounded community.  It’s unfortunate for Michael because he sacrificed so much and I can tell you many of his friends missing limbs have said being blind would be the worst injury of all. Michael lives with that on a daily basis and that’s never gonna change. I know many caregivers and their veterans who do not receive the resources and support that they should, it’s very disheartening because we too know what that struggle is like.

How do you want people to remember you and your life?  

KJ: I always loved and lived in every moment.  I was someone that they could always rely on for anything whether that was a conversation, a hot meal, or a roof over their head.  I was someone they knew they could come to in a moment of need. Finally, that I lived a blessed life full of love, laughter and amazing moments because of my beautiful  husband and our life together.

There is an undoubtedly profound beauty found in sincere words, and openness of spirit. Kim is about as blunt as they come, but she practices this brusque approach within a pure construct of empathy and understanding. We can all learn a lot from caregivers and those who know what it means to sacrifice day-in and day-out for their loved ones. Throughout our time with Kim, there was that always-present, selfless conduct. Everything within her day was about taking care of someone else and that “leading by example” mentality exemplifies the values that make her such an exemplary model. We tend to hold our veterans in a special place in our society, placing them on a pedestal in light of their service and this is well deserved. However, what about those who sacrifice for them? What about the Gold Star mother? What about the Silver Star wife? What about the White Star family? What about those who take care of everything at home while their loved one is deployed? What about those broken hearts that continually find ways to give back through such ferocious pain? We can’t forget them, and their words are pertinent markers in history that call attention to an all but forgotten demographic. Those words must be fervently shared.

We’d like to thank Kim for her time, and thank her husband Michael whose story will be featured on The Veterans Project blog. It’s truly inspiring to spend time with two inspiring people working together as one.


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Tim K Comment
The Bullock Family (Silver Star)

The other side of the story is an equally important narrative that doesn’t receive nearly enough attention in our Global War On Terror. Although you’d be hard pressed to find Jesica Bullock complaining about this, her story is an incredible one of perseverance that begs to be told. So much about her mimics Jared’s story in the way that she presents the details with a blunt and refreshing honesty almost unrecognizable in a culture that dresses almost everything up. Jesica Bullock is Jesica Bullock, a woman that doesn’t even regard herself as a caregiver anymore. She’s been everything to Jared that he’s needed and when that included allowing him to handle his own responsibilities, she did just that.

Her handling of Jared’s injuries was certainly assisted by her background as a well-respected nurse, but nothing ever completely prepares one for that level of care. The reality is, knowing the possibility of pain doesn’t necessarily make that pain any easier to bare. Still, you’ll never find Jesica grumbling about her supportive role with Jared. In fact, you’ll find someone who describes her background as possibly being a type of divine appointment, preparing her for the realities of caring for a wounded loved one. This journey was also a part of her growth as a mother to a young son, Aidan, and the realization that her role would continually evolve in his life. We’ve already said enough. Here’s Jesica.

How did you meet Jared?

JB: I met Jared 14 years ago when his brother was dating my roommate in college. They were all from the same town and she’d brought up meeting Kyle’s (Jared’s twin) twin brother. I didn’t really want to date anyone that was in the Army but she thought I’d really like him. He called me and we talked on the phone for about a month before we saw each other. We fell in love over the phone which seems a little bit crazy (laughs). I met his brother first which was weird since they look exactly alike. We met and it went from there. The relationship was long distance for two years. We dated for a year and then he deployed to Iraq the second year. We dated another eight months after that and got married in December. I moved to Fort Benning with him after that.


What were the things that most attracted you to him?

JB: Jared’s perseverance to do more everyday in the Army was very attractive to me. He was in the infantry and that just wasn’t enough for him. He came home one day and said, “Jess, I want to go to SF.” I said, “What’s that?” He explained that it was Special Forces which was a two year process. This was pretty hardcore and more than he was doing at the moment. It could also be dangerous. I told him I was fine with whatever he wanted to do. We moved to North Carolina after he passed selection. He passed and I could not have been more proud of him and his perseverance.

Was that time period stressful?

JB: That time period was and wasn’t stressful, because I got pregnant when we moved to North Carolina (laughs). We went through the nine month pregnancy in North Carolina. I had Aidan on a Saturday at noon and Jared left for 4 weeks on that following Monday. He left a day and half after I had our son. It wasn’t 100 percent stressful because I knew what I was getting into when I married him. It was somewhat easy for us and we made it work.

What makes a successful couple when it comes to Special Forces guys?

JB: I honestly don’t know what it takes to make it as a Special Forces couple. I really haven’t thought about that aspect of marriage. I knew when I married him that I was going to be committed to him no matter what because I loved him. I come from a deep, strong faith and knew who I married. I wanted to be with him the rest of my life no matter what. I think we are both so strong willed that we wouldn’t let a divorce happen. We’re both stubborn and will give it our all. The will to keep pushing no matter how hard life gets at times, is a major factor.

Can you tell me about the day he was wounded ?

JB: That day was weird. I had talked to him 12 hours prior the night before. He was 12 hours ahead and going into the day that it happened. We didn’t have great a conversation that night when he called me at 10:30pm my time. The long distance gets to you after awhile and you just have those bad days. We didn’t really fight but there wasn’t anything good to talk about. It just wasn’t a good conversation. I’m a nurse and had gotten up at 5 a.m. to go in for my 12 hour shift. My eyes had bags under them and I looked as if I had been crying. I didn’t cry after our conversation but it was just weird. My co-workers were asking what was wrong because I’m usually upbeat. I told them I just felt weird.

I went to a wound vac class and did not want to be in there but I had to be re-certified. The irony was three days later I found out that Jared had three wound vacs. The day was just very uncomfortable. There was a kid from my hometown that had lost his leg and was receiving a free vehicle from the State of Illinois Firefighters. It was the same night of the day that Jared’s accident happened. I found out about this event and called my mom. I asked “Did you see this kid that’s going to be on the football game tonight? He lost his leg and I think it’s so cool that he’s getting a new vehicle.” I missed the entire thing because I received the call that Jared had been injured. They told me he had lost his arm and his leg. It was just the weirdest day.

What was the feeling of that phone call?

JB: I was scared but I found myself feeling that I was super strong on that phone call. I don’t know how. I was half asleep and thinking I was on my way to work at 5 a.m. with Aidan asleep. I thought at first it was a dream and after he told me I sat straight up in the bed. I said, “Wait a second.” I had him repeat it to me because I seriously thought I was dreaming. He repeated it to me and it’s not a phone call anyone ever wants to receive.

Did you think about your future?

JB: I absolutely thought about our future. When we were dating we had conversations about this aspect of service. I knew in the back of my mind that there was a possibility he would not come home when he deployed. I understood that as a very real possibility. I never had that thought of him coming home injured, though. I come from a small town and was a just a little bit naive of those things in the world. You just didn’t see amputees where I’m from and you don’t know how to handle those situations until they happen. It just hits me like a ton of bricks pretty suddenly. I thought, “Oh my God. He’s coming home alive but what does this mean for us? Will he be able to talk to me? Is he going to make it?” It was a very uncomfortable feeling for sure.

What was the process after that? Did you fly out to Germany?

JB: I received the phone call along with his mom and twin brother. We all got the same phone call. They said they didn’t exactly know when we could come. He would need to arrive in Germany and be stable. They didn’t want to fly us out there too soon because if he was stable enough they would start the process of sending him back to the states. We ended up waiting three days to get over there. They said we would be allowed to go unless he took a turn for the worse. That Saturday evening they called and said we could come. It was a disheartening phone call because we had seen him on a video camera. He looked good. They said, “We need you to come.” His flight wasn’t going to get him back to the states until Thursday and they wanted us over there. We ended up going to Germany and spending three days with him.

What was the feeling like and seeing him in the bed for the first time?

JB: It was a bit of a relief to see him and that he looked okay. I got to see him a few times through webcam and talk to him. He wasn’t really able to talk because he had a tracheal tube in but to just be there with him was wonderful. I was there with him and not across the country from him. He only been deployed for one month to the exact day so it hadn’t been that long from seeing each other. It was definitely a good feeling to actually be there with him. It wasn’t that I didn’t care about him losing an arm and leg but I was just happy he was alive.

What was the process after that when you realized you would be a caregiver?

JB: I’m a nurse so taking care of him felt right for me. It was almost a sense of me realizing that my life’s calling to be a nurse was because this was going to happen. It was just that weird feeling again that we talked about beforehand. I give props to the wives and moms out there that are not nurses. This is a very hard thing to do when you aren’t a nurse. It was easy for me in that sense due to the fact I had been a nurse for 11 years. I knew what I was doing and wasn’t scared. The young wives and mothers that have never dealt with things like that, is hard to imagine for me. It’s your husband or son and you’re trying to take care of him but also be the mom or wife.

What did you specifically have to do?

JB: I did pretty much everything for Jared (laughs). He would save his bathroom breaks until I would come to the hospital (laughs). I did everything for him but I did try to not hover over the nurses that were caring for him. I took over but they would do the major things. When we arrived home I had to change his dressings on his leg once or twice a day. I would check to make sure it was alright. He was going to be headed to rehab for 6-8 weeks after being in the hospital for a month. I credit myself for being a nurse because he ended up not having to go to rehab. They said the only way he could go home was if he could get in and out of his truck with no difficulties. The stubbornness and strong will between the two us made that happen. He had two awesome occupational therapists that helped us out quite a bit. That was their goal with us because Jared’s monster truck was lifted and that was all we had to drive in Texas. Their main strategy was to get him in and out of there safely. We did and they helped us. We were home five days before Christmas. It was a nice thing that he didn’t have to go to rehab for the those 6-8 weeks and that I was able to take care of him.

What advice would you give to a spouse dealing with this situation ?

JB: I would tell spouses not to give up. You will have tough days and good days. You signed up to be with them and you will give them your all. They need your strength and support. I believe that helped get us through. I was strong for him and he stayed strong for me. I never sat there and cried in front of him because that wasn’t the time to cry. The time together was doing what needed to be done and figuring out life for the two of us.

What have you seen from him since those injuries ?

JB: I would have to say Jared’s perseverance is incredible, which has been there from the first day I met him. He was always a go-getter. The moment he woke up he began trying to figure out how to workout. His thought process was thinking of how to get up and how to get a new leg. He would call his twin brother and they would come up with some things he could do. He never gave up. There was one day when he did stop and grieve for his friends and for himself. That moment lasted for a blink of an eye and then he was back on track.

Do you still feel like a caregiver ?

JB: I don’t really feel like a caregiver anymore. I finally have been able to let that role go and move back into the wife role. Every woman is going to take care of their husband and do things for them (laughs). I don’t see myself as the caregiver and haven’t for at least 3 years. The first year I did a lot for him but for the most part he does things for himself now.

Can you tell us about the gym and adapting to that?

JB: I’ve decided to give up my nursing career for the moment to help with the gym. In the beginning, he was going to do this all alone with me being in the background. It evolved into us making all the decisions together over the last few years when it came to the gym. This has allowed us to be together unlike those first 5 or 6 years where we were always apart. We’ve started this new journey together. It’s his passion more than mine but I do enjoy it. I never envisioned myself owning a gym. It’s new and we never saw this coming. I saw myself being a nurse and thought he was going to stay in the Army for 20 years. This has been fun, although it’s tiring (laughs). It’s a new chapter for us and I wouldn’t be the same without him.

Can you talk about that ? How did you adapt to being around him all the time?

JB: I think I must just be one heck of a woman to adapt to Jared being around all the time (laughs). It definitely was a change and different. It was a life changing when he was wounded, and I didn’t have time to think about it. I took a bad situation and I turned it into a blessing in disguise. I have him home and he’s safe.

How has raising your son together been?

JB: It’s been great. Aidan turned four the day after Jared’s accident. The night I found out that Jared was injured, the next morning I had a birthday party planned for that night. I had all of our friends coming over to celebrate. Aidan had no idea what happened because I wanted it to be his day and he was having so much fun. Jared hadn’t been around a whole lot since he would be gone six months at a time quite often. It was a little different life since we would go to Texas for a while and then come back home. When we got back to Florida there were baseball games and school events and Aidan didn’t have to worry about him not being around. He didn’t wonder if his dad was going to be there. It’s been a challenge with parenting because I tend to let Aiden get away with more while Jared was gone. It’s been a fun journey and nice to have us all together.

How was your experience at BAMC (now SAMC)?

JB: BAMC was good and bad as far as the hospital because there were a few things that happened that I didn’t feel great about. The CFI and rehab were great. The occupational therapist that helped him did everything to help us get to our goals. The nurses were amazing as well. You’re going through a lot and trying to navigate the issues with what has just happened. We had assigned reps who helped us get housing, transportation, and anything we needed. It was incredible to have that help. We moved from Florida to Texas within a weeks time and that was very difficult.

Who was your most helpful team member with your family during that process ?

JB: I had some close friends that were from Florida and helped pack up the vehicle when we moved to Texas. When we were on a SF team we had a close knit group of wives that were my rock. They were there for anything I needed whether it be packing or watching my son. This group of wives were the lifeline for those few days and even throughout the entire process of it all. When you get out of the routine and the process changes the aspect of the friendship changes. They all knew Jared and I were stable which showed them we could fend for ourselves.

What do you see in the future and moving forward with your goals ?

JB: I want this gym to be successful. I know this was not Jared’s dream in life. He wanted to be Special Forces for however long he could. I was going to be a nurse until I retired and then have a ranch somewhere. Life changed just a little bit. It’s a nice feeling to have your own thing with someone you love. You built this yourself and no one helped you. This is all ours and we have done it together. We want to be successful and leave a legacy which I think Jared already has left one. He didn’t give up.

What advice would you give to spouses trying to own their own business together ?

JB: It’s hard (laughs). You should never underestimate it and make sure you love the person you’re with (laughs). You will fight quite often and the decisions have to be made no matter who makes them. Whatever budget your plan is you should double that and stick to your passion. You need to make sure you can agree on things. Don’t give up.

Resilience is a truly beautiful human trait in our nation’s caregivers. Demands arise few could ever imagine but those are met by great love and perseverance as seen in the example of spouses like Jesica. Although she must’ve mentally prepared herself for those possibilities of brokenness, she would’ve never truly known those realities until that tempestuous moment of truth. Still, her example is one of taking a moment in stride and immediately moving forward towards greater goals. Although Jared was already an incredible example of strength in his own buoyancy, Jesica’s resolve surely only served to enhance his determination. Sadly enough, there will be future Silver Star Families dealt the harsh realities of lives forever changed as the battle follows our veterans home. Those families would do well to follow the examples of heroes like Jesica and Jared. We at The Veterans Project would like to thank Jesica for being our first Silver Star caregiver on the blog. Check out the Bullock’s gym Foundry Athletics on Instagram: @foundryathletics and Facebook: @FoundryAthletics.


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Tim K
The Keys Family (Gold Star)

How do we quantify pain and sacrifice?  There's no numeric value we can link to those valleys in life and how could there be?  The simple fact is, everyone's pain is unique to their own lives.  We don't know what it's like because we simply don't know what it is to be the other person.  When Lisa Keys lost her husband Master Sergeant Brad Keys (10th Special Forces Group) to a HALO (High Altitude, Low Opening) training accident in Eloy, Arizona over five years ago, she was already the mother of Ethan, a child with special needs.  Ethan was born 18 years ago with cerebral palsy, a condition characterized in medical science as “dysgenic corpus callosum” which simply means that the two halves of his brain aren't able to properly communicate due to the area between being thinner than normal.  More recently, Lisa found out Ethan also suffers from Epilepsy which is "a neurological disorder marked by sudden recurrent episodes of sensory disturbance, loss of consciousness, or convulsions, associated with abnormal electrical activity in the brain."  This story could be characterized as tragic, but the reader receives the allowance of being the judge. 

This is a love story... a love story that extends beyond the bounds of what most would consider as being "realistic" or "feasible."  The tale is true, genuinely told by Lisa, and encompasses the life of a Special Forces soldier that not only loved her but loved her special needs son with a commitment so deep even the most talented Hollywood screenwriter would find themselves blown away.  This particular story doesn't necessarily have a happy ending, but the in-between parts of the plot are what make it so ultimately beautiful.  Read every word with an open mind to the beauty of life, love, and compassion.  These words come from a woman who's experienced love and tragedy on the most substantial of scales.  This particular project is dedicated to Brad Keys, a man remembered as the ultimate example of a Green Beret, a man who lived his life in dedication to his family and country.  Here's Lisa. 

Talk about how you met Brad.  

LK: Brad’s mom and I met while we both were waiting tables.  She would always talk about Brad and what a wonderful guy he was.  She’d bring photos of him to work and tell me how amazing he was (laughs).  He’d been in a relationship for awhile and it ended up not working out. When his mother told me that his relationship ended I jokingly told her, “Well, tell him to call me (laughs).”  The initial phone call I actually laughed at him because I was joking when I told his mom to have him call me. We chatted on the phone for maybe a month or so, and he came down at one point from Ft. Bragg.  I met him for lunch at the restaurant his mom and I worked at for our first date. After that date, we continued phone conversations for another couple months and we’d make tentative plans for weekends but things didn’t really ever pan out.  We didn’t actually see each other again until after he went to selection the first time which was in November of 2003. We continued to date and he was invited back to selection. I think that was in February of 2004 and he made it through that time.  We dated through his time in the Q-Course and we got engaged shortly thereafter.

How do you explain Ethan’s condition for those of us that might not understand?  What do you have to do for him specifically on a day to day basis?  

LK: In general terms, Ethan has cerebral palsy. Specifically, he has a malformation of his brain called a, “dysgenic corpus callosum.” The part of his brain that separates the right and left halves is thinner than it’s supposed to be and acts as a block between the two halves so they can’t communicate.  Ethan isn’t verbal. He’s also not ambulatory and has zero self-care skills.  I have to do everything for him on a daily basis.  I feed him, change diapers, bathe him, transfer him from point A to point B.  I transport him to and from school and any appointments he may have.

Can you talk about Ethan and what he means to you?

LK: Ethan’s my life source.  He has some particularly needs that many would deem as hefty, but to me they’re not. He’s not verbal due to cerebral palsy and he has seizures because of epilepsy, but he has the best attitude and disposition of anyone I’ve ever met.  You could have a kid who wasn’t special needs but is a jerk.  I’ll take this guy who is a ray of freakin’ sunshine everyday.  He has the sparkliest personality. I know that’s not very manly to say about a 17 year old boy, but he is sparkly.  And, he has been my toughest challenge in being a single mom at 19 and then coming to terms with the fact that he had special needs.  It’s been my driving force and my reason to not quit or give up on anything, though.  He needs me and he needs to live the best life possible.  I know that I need him as well.  I know he’s limited in certain ways, but I still want to make sure in any other way he’s living his best life.  When Brad died, Ethan was the reason I got up every single morning.  There was no option B, only option A to get my ass up out of the bed and put one foot in front of the other and just keep going.

What do you remember about Brad and being introduced to Ethan? 

LK: Brad and I were about to go on a date and I was living with my mom and dad at the time.  I wasn’t ready for the date yet but he said that he’d hangout with Ethan while I was getting ready.  I was a little weirded out because some single moms go into relationships looking for a father for their child and I definitely didn’t want to seem that way.  I didn’t want anyone to have that perception of me.  They hung out and played while I got ready.  When we were at dinner that night Brad said to me, “I don’t want to scare you but I think I love your son (laughs).”  If anyone else had said that to me I would’ve thought, “Creeper alert (laughs).”  For some reason when Brad said it, it seemed so natural.  Because it seemed so natural, I didn’t question him all that much.  

What was the toughest thing about Brad being gone on deployments?

LK: I think the first deployment was the biggest kicker for me. It was just like, taking him to the airport, dropping him off, and then leaving and realizing, "Wow, he’s going to be gone for eight months."  You can think about it, but to really actually process it, process how long that is is incredibly difficult.  You start thinking about how long it will be before you see that person again and how long before you get to hug and kiss that person again.  Communication wise you don’t know how often you’re going to get to speak to that person and just trying to get on with your life, under these circumstance is interesting.

What was the toughest thing about him being Special Forces?

LK: Special Forces soldiers, even when they’re home, are still not 100% available. They're always out training. There is no R&R sort of thing.  When they are gone, they don’t get to come home.  There isn’t that two week R&R period on deployments, which might actually be a good thing.  I had some jealousy about that, but then I was also grateful because I think those R&R periods kind of screw with family chemistry.  I imagine it has to mess with your head a bit, because they get home, you get used to having them around again, and then they are gone after only two weeks.  I lost count on the days but he deployed in 2007, then he deployed again in 2008 and then he went 2009 for a training mission. For every year that we lived here up until we moved to Fort Bragg, he was gone for some sort of training, deployment, or some sort of school for an extended amount of time.

What do you remember about Brad deploying?

LK: Ethan doesn’t have the capacity to understand when someone is gone.  It’s like an “out of sight, out of mind” thing for him.  That part of it wasn’t difficult but it was navigating things in the military, like insurance and all those sorts of things that were really foreign and the military doesn’t make easy for you.  During deployments, it seems even less easy.  I still didn’t figure all that stuff out until after he died.  You marry somebody who is your partner.  But, then they’re gone and you’re left to make really big decisions on your own, that you would typically bounce off of someone or have someone’s help with.  When they’re gone, they are in a high stress situation, so there are just some things you didn’t want to bother them with.  You just don’t take that personally.  It’s a really tough thing to deal with.  It’s a deployment and you see it as a deployment, but when they’re telling you stories of what they are doing with their buddies, you don’t want to be jealous about it because they are at war.  They deserve to have down time where they are joking around, but then you’re like, “My kid just puked and shit everywhere, and I haven’t taken a shower in two days. Good for you that you guys got to hang out in your Ranger Panties and dick around (laughs). His second deployment to Iraq, they were in Najaf and they built a trebuchet, or what most people would see as big huge slingshot. I was like, “Wait, what are you guys doing building a trebuchet?  That sounds way too fun.”  

It’s a fine balance of where you don’t want to be angry at them because they are away from home, but you try to see that they are working really hard and they need to be able to have their own down time.  When it sounds like they are having a grand old time and here you are missing them, that’s tough.  It’s interesting because I absolutely knew what his job was.  The first deployment I screwed up and watched every documentary that you’re not supposed to watch.  I watched the National Geographic one, “Inside The Green Berets”, and I think one of the 18-Charlies dies at the end.  I also watched, “Alive Day” that documentary that James Gandolfini did.  Those are things you shouldn’t be watching (laughs).  When I had conversations with him, I never got the impression that he was doing the things in those documentaries.  He was very low key about everything they were doing.  Most stories I heard about their deployments came after he died or from other spouses, or other wives whose husbands did tell.  I didn’t begrudge him for not telling me things. He wanted to protect me and he didn’t want me to be worried about the things he was doing.  He knew I wasn’t one of those spouses that thought he was over there twiddling his thumbs.  I was very aware that he was in almost constant danger over there and was working very hard.

How was your marriage when he was on deployments and how tough was that?

LK: You have these problems at home and they’re not anything that they can fix. There were times when I would tell him about a problem that was happening and it would frustrate him more than anything.  He couldn’t do anything about it because he couldn’t come home. You want to be able to tell them everything that is going on but you also don’t want to put the added stress on them.  There were times when it was most definitely tricky.  We had some conversations that ended up with me in tears and him hanging up.  It was just such a frustration on both our parts to recognize.  How do you be supportive of somebody who is a million miles away from you and just want to tell them the fucking hot water heater bottom rusted out (laughs)?  It was things that if he were on post or working a normal 9 to 5, he would be able to offer a solution.  You’re married and you have a partner, but there is a chunk of time that you are a single parent again. 

What do you remember about Brad and how he first was introduced to Ethan?

LK: Brad and I were going to go on a date and at the time I was in x-ray school, living with my parents and Ethan.  Brad showed up early for the date and I wasn’t ready so he told me he would hang out with Ethan while I got ready.  I was a little weirded out because some single moms go into a relationship looking for a father figure, a father for their child. I didn’t want to be perceived as that person. They played and hung out, and I got ready. We went to dinner that night and he said, “I don’t want to scare you, but I think I love your kid.” If anyone else had said that to me, I would have thought, "creeper alert" (laughs) but for some reason it just didn’t feel that way with him. 

What did the relationship between them mean to you?

LK: It was amazing.  I had in my head that it was just me and Ethan, and I was okay with that.  I never anticipated that someone would come along and want to be a part of our lives.  Ethan was four at the time, when he met Brad, and he had special needs, as he gets older they get more apparent.  At that age, I was a little worrisome that somebody would be intimidated, but he never missed a beat with any of it. I fought it for a little bit, like how helpful he was with me with Ethan.  I remember going places the three of us and I would get out of the car, get Ethan, get his bag, and when we would go to dinner, I would bring a special chair for him to sit in.  I would carry all of it and Brad would say, “I look like a dick because you won’t let me carry anything.”  It turned into a running joke for years where I would carry all of the things.  He got very caring towards Ethan and very much just wanted be a part of our lives.  I worked weekends at the hospital and that's the time we got to see each other.  He would come into town and Ethan would be at either my parents or his other grandparents house while I was working.  Brad would go over there to hangout with him.  It turned out that he just wanted to hang out with Ethan. 

Brad would spend the days with just him. I don’t even know if we were married yet, but he took Ethan to have photos made of the two of them, while I was work all day (laughs).  We had a friend, and it was Brad's friend that he introduced me to.  She was in the army with him and had just gotten out of the Army but still living in Fayetteville. She told me one day, “You do realize, it’s the Army, and Ethan, and then you.” I think I did know that already.  Ethan and I already had established relationships with his family, so it just all worked out and was fairly easy.  My mom's perception about military guys was really skewed, I’m not sure where she got it, but she just had this really wonky stereotype of military men.  She didn't trust him at first.  My dad was in love with him pretty quickly.  Brad just fell right in with our family.  He would go pick Ethan up and Ethan would just hang with him.  The weekends when I was working, he would go and have coffee and breakfast with dad and then go hang out with Ethan.

What do you remember about when you got the call that day?

LK: They came to my door, a chaplain from 3rd Special Forces Group, and another guy that I don’t really remember.  I had been putting the Christmas tree up because Brad was supposed to be home the next day.  We were going to decorate the tree.  I was putting the tree up and someone knocked on the door, and it was about 8 o’clock on a Thursday night.  I don’t answer the door unless I know who it is.  We lived in a gated community so it was weird that someone was coming to the door.  I didn’t answer and the knocking didn’t stop.  I ended up calling my mom and saying, “Someone is at the door, will you stay on the phone with me while I answer the door because they won’t stop knocking?”  When I opened the door I immediately knew.  I knew with them standing there exactly what they were there for even though it was so hard to process.  He was just on a trip for a week and it wasn’t like he was on a deployment type of thing.  I remember telling my mom that I had to go, that Brad was dead and I could hear her screaming on the other end of the line.  I just hung up on her.

Do you remember where you were when you found out?

LK: When I got notified, I was putting up our Christmas tree.  My Christmas tree sat half put up, and then when my family came. My niece at the time was 6 and she didn’t understand, she just wanted the Christmas tree up. My sister finished putting the tree up and then we let Francis, my niece decorate it. I had no desire to finish.  We went through Christmas and we went through the motions because of her. The whole time it felt like this out of body experience, where I couldn’t believe we were having a Christmas. I forced it a little bit because she was wavering on her belief of Santa Claus and I was so bothered by that. I thought she was too young and I wanted her to still believe, so we went above and beyond.  She wanted to leave donuts, which sadly the donuts were some that someone had brought over because of Brad.

She wanted to leave donuts for Santa so I took bites out of the donuts like it was Santa.  I chewed up carrots and spit them out on my floor like the reindeer had been in my house (laughs).  We just desperately wanted her to still have a Christmas experience.  Ethan doesn’t really understand what Christmas is.  Any day could be Christmas for him.  Brad died on the 13th and our wedding anniversary would have been the 16th and they flew him back on the 19th or 20th.  We had a memorial service on the 22nd and then Christmas.  He was buried on the 4th of January in Arlington and 10th Group had a memorial for him two weeks after.  It was a month of complete shit.

What do you remember about the time after that?

LK: I remember they came in and I know it’s their job and they want to comfort you and they want to help you.  I didn’t want to be comforted.  If I would sit down, they would sit down.  If I would stand up, they would stand up. I think I even said to them at one point, “Just fucking let me do my own thing.  Don’t follow me.”  I’m sure that some of it is even a safety thing where they have to keep an eye on you to make sure you’re not suicidal. The man that was with the chaplain was very much into interacting with Ethan and I was just making phone calls. I called my sister first and then I tried to call Brad’s mom but I couldn’t get in touch with her. They told me they were sending somebody to their house.  I left that on the back burner and called my sister first.  She lives in Virginia and got in the car immediately and drove to me, which was a 5 hour drive at the time. I called my best friend who is in South Carolina and she did the same thing.  We had some friends locally that I called, the first one was one of Brad’s friends that had been stationed out here with us.  He had just moved to Bragg also.  I knew he was the closest by so he came over and then another friend of Brad’s came over and his wife.  

It was really surreal.  Somebody brought beer and we just sat talking, not really about what happened, but commiserating about Brad.  It was probably 1 or 2 in the morning by the time my sister got here and the same for my best friend. We stayed up for a while and eventually people went home. We went to bed at 5 o’clock in the morning and I remember getting up and calling Ethan’s teacher and telling her what had happened.  I told her I didn’t know when he was coming back to school.  I remember trying to decide whether I should put something out on social media and I saw that someone had already made a comment on Brad’s Facebook page, “Rest in peace,”  or something like that. It was the 10th Group chaplain who did it and he’s no longer a chaplain with them anymore.  I created a post saying, “In the age of social media, things that you think you would like to keep private, you can’t, so here I am saying this is what happened.” I didn’t tell people that he died in a parachute accident.  I know that’s part of the job, at the time it felt so undignified.

Brad loved that shit.  Before he went to North Carolina, he wanted a job as an instructor for HALO school.  It just wasn’t going to work out because we would have had to live in Yuma and some medical services that Ethan would need, he couldn’t have.  There’s a limit for tri-care of 70 miles.  The neurologist would have been all the way in Phoenix and the mileage wasn’t going to work.  I know he died doing what he loved, but I also know the type of person he was. The crap people say, “Oh I’m sure he was thinking about you, and he was thinking about Ethan before he went.”  No, I knew Brad. That doesn’t offend me to know he wasn’t thinking about me when he died.  I knew he was pissed and he probably thought it was something he did and was trying to correct the mistake. He never thought he was good at his job. In January of 2012 he made the E-8 list, and it was his first look at E-8. The people who he thought deserved to be E-8 more so than him didn’t make it, and he was almost embarrassed that he made it before those guys.  That’s just the kind of guy Brad was.  He felt bad that he was being promoted instead of the other guys. 

What was it like in the days after Brad’s death?

LK: When Brad first died, I was prescribed Ambien and Valium, the day after he died. At the time, it was absolutely necessary.  I don’t remember just having a really crazy period in my life where I couldn’t keep going.  I might've had a fleeting thought of, “I just want to die” but then immediately corrected myself.  I got therapy very early on, in fact right after he died.  Obviously he was killed right before the Christmas holidays, so just getting through the holidays was very tough.  I started seeing a therapist and just having somebody to vocalize to when I was having those dark times was a wonderful thing for me.  I remember my therapist in North Carolina telling me that all the things I was feeling was this big black hole and telling me it’s okay to go into the hole, but you just have to have your hand on the sides of the cavern so you don't fall all the way into the hole.  Ethan was my hand on the side, because I knew no matter how shitty I felt, I still had to get up every morning and take care of him.  I was going to therapy twice a week and then when things got a little better I moved to once a week visits.  

I moved out here to Colorado Springs and it took me a little while to find a  therapist, but when I did, I immediately got back into therapy.  It will be five years in December (2017) and I still see a therapist every week.  It’s nice to have an objective, because everything in your life is subjective. Therapists give you an objective.  It’s nice to have someone tell you you’re not crazy and that the feelings I’m having, especially moving forward in life, and having another relationship or even just at times when you feel it happy again.  Feeling happy feels wrong sometimes.  Grief changes from one day to the next.  Early on, there were days I felt really dark, and there were also days that I laughed a lot and then I'd feel guilty for laughing.  Another thing that was good for me was exercise. The day after Brad died, I worked out. There were people in the house and I went upstairs, where everybody would leave me alone, and I worked out. I was already utilizing exercise as a tool for good feelings and when you do something like that, you know that you feel good after you’ve done it.  I just knew if I let that go, it would be harder for me to get back to a good feeling place.  The day we buried Brad at Arlington, I worked out in my hotel room.  Don’t ask me if I ate or showered (laughs).  

What are some of your best memories of Brad?

LK: He had this persona of being such a badass, but he was the biggest dork (laughs).  He was a dork, so goofy, funny and charismatic. I had this thought the other day, if I would wear perfume, he would smell me like really creepy and he would say, “You smell like pretty.”
(laughs) I would say, “What?” and he would reply, “If pretty had a scent, it would be you.”
(laughs)  He had a really infectious laugh. I was looking at some of his military things and those to me, even though I know they’re important, those aren’t my memories of him.  We own Breakin’ and Breakin’ 2 Electric Boogaloo because of Brad. He told me that he wanted to grow a mullet when he got out the Army.   That was his ultimate dream after getting out (laughs). He wanted a Joe Dirt mullet and he was completely serious.  We have a mullet wig that Ethan has worn since then, but I bought it for Brad to wear on Halloween. He took on this whole hilarious redneck persona when he put on that wig. He was the life of the party and everybody was his friend, laughing and happy.  It was so interesting to even think that he was a Green Beret because of the hardness that they have to have. 

It was not who he was at the core and he probably cried more than I did most times. The first time we took Ethan to Disney World and we saw him interact with the characters we took him to eat at Cinderella’s castle and all the princesses came around the table.  Ethan loved it.  They kissed him and left lipstick kiss marks on him.  One of them was Belle from Beauty and the Beast.  She was so sweet with Ethan.  She was whispering to him and spent more time with him than she did other tables.  When we got up to leave, she left the table that she was at and came over to talk to him.  Brad lost it when she did that.  He had to leave because he was crying so hard.  He had this tough exterior when he needed it but he was really the most gentle soul.  He was a sucker for Ethan.  Ethan had figured out how to be super manipulative at that point (laughs).  He would do anything and get away with it.  I remember had to have some pretty major surgeries which were two hip surgeries, where they broke his hips and repositioned them in the sockets.  Brad was a mess, and I remember I had to threaten him, “You have to keep it together, because I can’t keep you propped up and him propped up at the same time.” 

I think it was tougher for him in his job though because he felt such a close relationship to his teammates and he was so empathetic. When he was thinking about the transition into being a Team Sergeant and possibly being their boss and not being their buddy all the time, that was really hard for him.  He really struggled and that’s why he wanted to take a break and do something else.  He didn’t want to immediately transition to Team Sergeant, because he wanted to think about it and step away from it so he could gain some confidence in that role as a leader.  He just wanted to maintain friendships and in a role of leadership that is really tough, although I know he would have been a really great leader.  It’s such a bummer because he was the type of guy who didn’t know how good he was at his job.  I’m sure people told him, but when someone dies people come out of the woodwork to tell you what a phenomenal guy he was. I just wish he could know that he knew what people felt about him.

When you lost Brad what was the process?

LK: In regards to caring for Ethan, at that point, it was almost like I could do it with my eyes closed and my hands tied behind my back.  What I found to be most difficult were the times when he was sick or the time when was diagnosed with epilepsy.  Those are tough things that you go through when you have a child with disabilities.  When a child who is nonverbal gets sick, you spend the first 24 hours trying to figure out what is wrong with them. They can’t say, “My throat hurts, my head hurts, my ears hurt.”  Brad was my support system and knowing you’re not doing it alone, to going back to being alone and realizing that there is no one I can bounce anything off of was soul-crushing at first.  These are decisions I have to make on my own now.  I feel like the trauma of him being diagnosed with epilepsy, I physically took it harder than I did with Brad’s death from a “taking care of Ethan” standpoint. 

How do you move past that and move on with your life?

LK: You don’t replace them because you can’t.  I first thought that I don’t know if I could date anybody unless they were military because I was used to that sort of lifestyle.  I just realized at a certain point that no one measures up to Brad.  I was proud of Brad being Special Forces.  I got to a point where I realized you’re not trying to replace that person.  It’s an interesting position to be in to talk about your husband and your boyfriend in the same sentence where it’s normal.  I’ll never stop loving Brad.  

What’s been most difficult about the memories?

LK: Brad and I had really similar musical tastes. In the evenings, we just listened to whatever was on his or my iTunes. When he died, I couldn’t listen to any of that anymore because it was all just a memory of us being weird and singing together, and singing and dancing with Ethan. The last six months or so, I’ve actually gotten to a point where I can listen to the Smashing Pumpkins.  That was one of Brad’s favorite bands. The song, ‘Mayonnaise’ (Smashing Pumpkins), was something Brad sang that to me one of the first times we went out.  That song wrecked my life for the longest time after he died.  It’s still a little tough and that one is probably the toughest.  I couldn’t listen to Beastie Boys for a long time, because it was what we liked mutually.  Everything reminded me of him and a lot of it still does, but it’s about being able to manage that pain.  Shows, movies, television shows we watched together, I just stopped watching completely. There are some I haven’t been able to pick back up, and a few it took me quite a while to feel comfortable with again.  Modern Family was one that we both liked.  It took me a long time to watch it and be okay with laughing when I was watching it.  It's not like I felt I was cheating on him, but he couldn’t watch it anymore and laugh so I thought I shouldn’t be able to watch it and laugh.

What’s it been like in starting over? 

LK: I didn’t put up a Christmas tree until last year and I had to go out and buy a completely new tree. It took me awhile to get over that.  The year after Brad died we went to Disney World and stayed until right before Christmas.  I’m okay now with doing some Christmas traditions but I don’t think I could have Christmas with my family anymore.  Having those people in my house around that time is a reminder and it’s always a painful one.  They were all in my house around that time when Brad died.  They understand that memory is still painful for me.  We started doing Disney World every year and we come home before Christmas.  And then last year I got this weird feeling I could put up a tree. I put up the tree and realized I really liked it and this year, I’m actually excited about it again.  I’m glad to have those feelings back.  We will still go to Disney World, but we’ll be back before Christmas. 


Explain some of your experiences after Brad's death.  

LK: This weird thing happened when we were at Disney World last year and it was the strangest coincidence.  A lot of people who have loved ones die say they experience what’s called, “God’s wink,” or some type of sign and I really haven’t.  I went to see a psychic early on and she told me really horrible things and it wrecked me. She told me that Brad’s death was my fault because I had a pattern of a mess in my life and until I fix that pattern all these horrible things would continue to happen to me.  She told me that Brad hadn’t come to terms with his death and she couldn’t speak to him because he was sitting in limbo.  I genuinely believe that Ethan used to be able to see him.  When we were in North Carolina, before we moved away, Ethan would point at the stairs all the time and groan.

 He would blow a kiss occasionally in that direction.  I think it was Brad watching Ethan.  Last year when we were at Disney World, on December 13th the anniversary of his death, we were leaving Magic Kingdom and one of the employees came up and asked if we had a good evening and I said yes.  They said, “We’d like to treat you to something.  Can you come with us?”  They do this thing that they pick random people and it’s called, “A magical moment.”  They brought Ethan and me over and they rolled out a red carpet and gave us a whole bus to ourselves that was filled with balloons. We had a bus to ourselves to go back to the resort and took photos. They didn’t know what day it was, and that moment made me think that it was him.  I felt this sense of peace, at that moment and I knew we were going to be alright.

What was the response like from the guys in his unit?

LK: Not all of the guys from his unit have been open to having a conversation with me and I completely understand.  When they gave me his report, it was a binder that was 800 pages, and it has handwritten statements from all the guys that were there with him and what they saw. At the time they were doing an investigation and determining Brad’s character and those things. The statements are anonymous to me in the book they gave me, but I know who wrote some of the statements based on what they wrote. I have never told them that I know, but it’s made me reach out to them more to a couple of the guys more, not for me but for them. One of the guys took quite a while to come around and we’re good friends now. He admitted he didn’t know what to say to me.

I don’t blame them at all but I’m a reminder of what happened so that makes it harder on them.  When they see me they’re reminded of what happened to Brad and I don’t begrudge anyone that because I can’t even imagine what that’s like for them.  I felt worse for them because after he died they were held down in Arizona during the investigation. They didn’t get to come home to their families. They watched their friend jump to his death and some of them found his body.  I read the medical reports. They went over it briefly when they briefed me about his accident. I’m an x-ray tech so I read through it, which I wished I wouldn’t have done. I didn’t look at any photos.  I had them all removed from the report by my casualty officer. I didn’t look at the photos because I’ve done x-rays in a morgue before.  I’ve seen a dead body.  Reading those reports gave me a secondary post-traumatic stress because I could picture things that I had seen in a morgue or trauma setting and I could put Brad’s face on all of them.  After that, I did EMDR therapy.  It’s a way to disassociate your brain from certain memories.

What were those transition days like?

LK: I started the home buying process and it felt like things had made a shift and I was feeling better but then Ethan had his first seizure.  I was asleep in the bed next to him and I woke up to him seizing.  It scared the crap out of me and it was a really tricky time just trying to figure it all out.  His seizures are most likely from his cerebral palsy because he has a malformation of his brain.  The triggers of these episodes are typically exhaustion, illness, or dehydration, which he tends to be prone to.  It’s tough to navigate and figure out all of that.  He’s the kid I could take somewhere and be up until 2 am.  He’s that kid who parties harder than anyone.  He’s always been the life of the party.  

I wasn't keeping him sleep deprived, but just never questioning what I was doing and then found out it was exhaustion.  I felt terrible when I realized he was just really tired. The first seizure he had was after a trip to DC. We had gone to Arlington for Memorial Day and we had a really busy weekend.  Nate (Boyer) was actually in town. We hung out with all the guys from 22 Kill who were there and it was a late night where we were up until 1 or 2 in the morning.  Ethan and I, were both there and he didn’t bat an eye about it.  We had to figure things out from there so we had to change our lifestyle and dial it back.  It was a big adjustment.  Typically when we go home after school, I let him just chill in the afternoons so he can just have down time. I’m always trying to make sure he gets enough rest and still try to maintain a good social life, because he’s very social. We like to travel and I like to keep him as healthy as possible throughout that. 

What advice would you give to anyone stepping into that role marrying a Special Operations world?

LK: Patience and communication are the keys to being married to a Special Operations soldier.  I think that’s true in regards to any relationship.  It took a failed relationship and then a marriage that ended in death and then being in another relationship and a shit load of therapy to say, “Communication is key.”  No one can read anyone’s mind and you can’t play forty million hints or beat around the bush.  If you’re feeling a certain way you need to tell somebody you’re feeling that way.  If you have an issue, you voice the issue and just be honest about it.  Patience,  and having patience with yourself in regards to it because it’s going to be frustrating.

How do you be a supportive wife for someone who is a million miles away that you may get to talk to once a week or every couple of weeks?  Nowadays with Specials Ops soldiers, the communication has gotten even stricter about the means in which they communicate.  They have to clear their computer when they go and no social media.  The counterintelligence has gotten a lot better.  Patience with yourself, patience with your husband, and patience when they get home too.  Don’t be afraid of therapy.  It can’t hurt anyone.  It can’t hurt for you to go alone when they are on deployment or it can’t hurt for the two of you to go when they get home. It’s not something to be afraid of and it doesn’t mean that your marriage is failing. You’re supposed to use therapy as a tool to be a better wife or husband. 

What were the things that helped you in the wake of Brad’s death and who was your support group?

LK: Exercise was really important for me.  I think the biggest thing is you’re going through this crazy emotional roller coaster and it’s different for everyone when you lose that loved one. 
No one understands what you’re going through and the people in your life need to recognize that they’re not going to understand.  All I wanted was to know that someone was there.  I didn’t need anyone on a everyday basis.  In fact, when people finally went home I was so glad. 
I just wanted some sort of routine back.  It’s different for everybody.  I think people’s expectation is that people will reach out.  But you also need to reach out to other people and say, “Hey I’m having a shit day.  Can we go have a beer?  Can we go for a hike?  Can we go to a movie?”  I was glad people went home after Brad died but I will tell you the quiet moments were really tough.  I fought the quiet with music, but then it was tough to find the music to listen to. I started listening to MoTown and the Goldies which I love. It’s a much simpler time, the music was much simpler.  I listened to so much damn Disney music I could sing every fucking song from every Disney soundtrack (laughs).  Ethan found it enjoyable and I could tolerate it.  It was something to fill the quiet spaces.

What have you been able to with Angels of America’s Fallen and what you’ve gotten to do with them?

LK: Ethan and I were introduced to Angels of America’s Fallen in 2013 when we moved back to Colorado Springs. They are based here locally, but they are a national organization. They provide funds for extracurricular activities for children of fallen service members and first responders. They wanted to be able to assist Ethan in a some way with extracurricular, but traditional extracurricular activities don’t really work for him.  I told them that I like to run with Ethan and was interested in running with Ethan and they replaced an adaptive jogging stroller that I had purchased that the movers had lost parts to. I got to know them over time, the husband and wife, Joe and Shelli Lewis.

I saw how hard they worked and how much they want to help the kids of the fallen.  I thought they would be a good organization to try and raise money for in honor of Brad for his birthday.  Brad’s birthday is on August 16th, so starting in 2014, I asked people if they would pay it forward in honor of him.  In 2015, we turned it into an event and into a virtual 5k. The virtual race allowed people to just register and just run whenever or wherever is convenient for them.  All of the proceeds go to Angels of America’s Fallen and the first year we gave participation dog tags to everyone. We’ve created a medal and have done a different medal the past two years. I hand-write thank you notes and pack and ship all the medals myself. Since 2014, I’ve helped raise about $28,000 for them.

Describe the importance of your Mt. Kilimanjaro climb with Waterboys.  Talk about why you decided to do it in the first place. 

LK: I was invited to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro by one of Brad’s best friends, Nate Boyer. Nate had recently made the climb as part of a Waterboys' initiative called Conquering Kili. He and a wounded Veteran had raised money for two clean water wells prior to their climb and Nate wanted to dedicate one of those wells in memory of Brad. He wanted me to help choose which well site would be dedicated to Brad and he invited me to visit Tanzania the following year to visit that site and climb Kili. It was so important for me to take that trip because this well is part of Brad’s legacy now.  Children at the Longido Secondary School receive clean water from a well dedicated to my husband. I’m also a huge supporter of the Waterboys' initiative and I think Brad would have been too. The Green Berets’ motto is De Oppresso Liber which means, "Liberate the Oppressed" and Brad was a big believer of this motto not only at work but in life in general.  Providing clean water to those in need in Tanzania is indeed liberating them.

What did it mean to you to have one of Brad’s best friends, Nate Boyer, on that climb with you?

LK: Nate has been there for me since Brad was killed.  He has always made it a point to honor Brad, Ethan, and I at every opportunity and his support and love mean more to me than I could ever put in words.  Being able to take that trip and climb that mountain with him was so important and I think bonded us even deeper.  We had a really emotional moment at the top of that mountain when we placed Brad’s HALO Jumpmaster wings and dog tags on the sign welcoming us at Uhuru Peak.

What was your favorite moment or what was the most significant moment on that climb?  

LK: The most significant moment for me was definitely reaching the summit of Kilimanjaro. The climb was not easy. Most of us struggled in one way or another. I had terrible anxiety during our hike to the summit and considered quitting several times so getting to the top was definitely the most significant moment. I also reached the summit alongside Nate and Kirstie Ennis who became the first female above the knee amputee to summit Mt. Kilimanjaro. That was a huge honor for me to be walking next to her as we approached Uhuru Peak.

Life is made up of ups and downs, those peaks and valleys varying for every single individual.  Some might see Lisa as having been dealt a poor hand but after reading her words, you may see things differently.  There's beautiful truth even in the most harsh of circumstances, and Lisa's story can be one that makes a difference in the lives of so many.  That's why it's becoming increasingly imperative that these stories find their way to the surface.  Ignorance isn't bliss and in the case of our veterans and their families it's a disease.  Awareness must be spread so that we can better understand veterans and their loved ones.  This educational example is a lesson for future generations about how we as a society can handle this "minority group" in a more loving, respectful manner.  Why?  As a democratic culture, it behooves us to build a better future for those who've sacrificed for the greater good of liberty and the pursuit of happiness which these freedoms lend themselves to.  


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Gold StarTim K
The Farias Family (Gold Star)

John Felix Farias sat in the MEPs (Military Entrance Processing) room at Ft. Sam Houston in San Antonio, Texas.  His path into the Marine Corps had just begun at 18 years old.  Ironically, the room he was sitting in would one day be named in honor of his intrepid sacrifice.  Less than two years later he would be killed in action after meeting a violent end in a heavy engagement with the Taliban on a rooftop in Sangin.  That's the unfortunate nature of warfare and what makes the choice to join one of unparalleled courage and sacrifice.  There was a powerful moment a few days before John's death where he sent a video blog home to his parents.  It's important to watch this video because it will better help you understand John and the weighty significance of loss.  Imagine watching this as a parent of your only son. 

His mom and dad, Penny and Felix, are two of the most gracious human beings you will ever meet and that's what makes this blog that much more arduous to write.  There is no redemption on this earth for John's death.  His parents will always live with that incredibly harsh reality.  John will never be married, never have kids, never see another birthday and that's the truth of the matter.  To be honest, it was hard even thanking them for his sacrifice.  How do you thank parents who've lost their only son to such a harsh forfeiture of life?  There is no possible way to show enough reverence.  Yet, there is light to be found even from the most crushing darkness.  The John Felix Farias Memorial Scholarship Fund has created opportunities where there weren't and a true connection to the weight of sacrifice in death.  There are young men and women entering the work force now who know that the opportunity was extended to them because of someone their age stepping up and placing their own personal safety as the lowest of priorities, in the process of protecting the greatest nation on earth. 

It's vital that these stories are brought into the light.  We see examples of young war-fighters losing their lives in parts of the world we barely even knew existed, but we don't see the extension of that loss.  We don't see the stinging tears of the mother, father, brother, and sisters.  We don't witness the nights where sleep is a luxury as those painful memories strike with unforgiving force.  We aren't the ones that receive that crippling phone call that changes life forever as the realization hits that your only son isn't coming home.  The reality is, most of us just see the picture on the late night news of a young warrior gone too soon... and that's it.  Most of us probably nod our head in reverence and sigh as the harsh reality of war comes to light.  Then, we turn off our TV, maybe take a minute on social media to acknowledge their sacrifice, head to bed, and wakeup in the morning barely remembering their name.  And part of that is life. We can't stop our own lives because others have been lost, and our nation's war-fighters certainly wouldn't want that.  However, greater respect can be shown by not only showing reverence for that warrior's legacy but the families of those lost in combat.              


What do you remember about John's childhood?

PF (Penny Farias): John was always smiling.  He grew up playing sports.  He broke his nose playing basketball four times (laughs).  He played football but we didn't let him start playing until 7th grade.  He didn't play in any of the Pee Wee leagues.  He played soccer as well and took karate until he got his black belt.  He won some championships and I still have all those trophies upstairs.  He had a lot of friends and like everyone else he had some kids that tried to bully him when he was young.  He got really good grades and I never really remember him studying (laughs).  He had a lot of girlfriends and he just generally got along really well with girls.  He just made friends really easily. 

FF (Felix Farias): He was just actively friendly to everyone.  He loved the river so he became a lifeguard at the Comal River.  He loved that job because he said he got to meet a lot of girls (laughs). 

PF:  He was a boy scout too.  The boy scouts were having a class on diving and I was a diver myself a long time ago.  I helped the class with that and we all went out to Canyon Lake.   I remember it raining and it was so cold.  I think the class was in February.  It was not a good time to have a class but John still loved it.  He eventually made it all the way to Eagle Scout.  When he went into the Marine Corps he went in as a Private First Class because of his experience as an Eagle Scout.  He had a lot of fun in the scouts and I remember him being a big practical joker.  He and two other boys got in big trouble for a practical joke one time.  I remember having to go get him from the camp because he got kicked out of the camp for that (laughs).  We have lots of pictures of those times as a scout.  He really liked that.  I made sure that he made it to Eagle Scout because I knew that would really be important to him later in life. 

When he played football at Canyon we'd travel to all of his road games in Kerrville or Corpus or wherever the team went.  He was a powerlifter as well.  I remember his smile more than anything else and I remember that laugh.  One of the times when he called from Afghanistan, he was so proud of his smile that he asked to make sure we packed his mouthguard so he could keep his teeth straight while he was in combat (laughs).  What a thing to ask for while you're in Afghanistan.  I remember that he was also very compassionate.  He'd get really upset when he felt people were being mistreated.  I remember he went through a breakup when he was young and he just went to pieces.  He was so upset.  That was his first girlfriend and he was madly in love with her (laughs).  


Do you remember why he joined the Marine Corps?  

PF: 9/11 is why John joined.  As a kid he was also in the Junior Marines and we'd take him out to Austin to Camp Mabry.  You'll see in some of the pictures I show you upstairs when he was in the boy scouts, he has a Young Marines shirt on in some of those pictures.  He always wanted to be a Marine.  It was really funny because we actually didn't know he'd joined the Marine Corps.  I got home on a Friday and he said, "Mom, let's go somewhere."  We got in the car and I followed his directions.  That led me to the Marine recruitment center.  That's how I found out.  He'd already joined through the school.  He was 18 so he could do it on his own of course.  


How did you feel about that as a mother?

PF: I was okay with him joining the Marines.  The only thing I tried to get him to change was his MOS.  I didn't want him to be infantry and 0311 is what John wanted to be.  He always wanted to be a firefighter growing up as well, so I thought maybe the Marine Corps had a firefighting MOS (laughs).  I said to him, "Why do you want to be on the front lines?"  He said to me, "You're not a true Marine if you're not infantry."  He wanted to go get the Taliban.  Felix didn't take it as well as I did. 

FF: He was our only son and I knew that with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that he'd be going to the front of the lines with the Marines.  That's what infantry does.  He wanted to go, though.  I gave him my blessing and just hoped for the best.   

PF: You have to let them do what they want to do at a certain age.  No mother wants their son to be infantry I don't think, but I wasn't super upset because I knew it's what he wanted to do.  He was happiest doing that.  That's what I try to think about when people ask me how I'm taking his death.  I know that he was doing what he wanted to do.  


What was it like being the mother of a Marine?  

PF: It was weird not being able to talk to him when he went to bootcamp.  He was gone for about twelve weeks or something like that.  I only got to talk to him at the end of it.  I worried about him and just hoped he was staying out of trouble (laughs).  I don't know how the Army is but those Marine Drill Instructors are incredibly tough on them.  We got to see that firsthand at his graduation.  We knew he was being trained well.  Since he was based out of Camp Pendleton we got to visit him a couple times when he was with his unit.  He called home a lot.  I never really had to worry about him once he got to his unit.  

He was having fun and he really enjoyed being a Marine.  He worked hard too.  When he graduated from bootcamp he was promoted to Lance Corporal.  He got in a little trouble and was demoted.  He got his rank back though as soon as they could possibly give it to him.  John was resilient.  He knew he'd messed up and he did everything to make it right from that point forward.  He graduated second in his class during bootcamp and was a team leader at SOI (School of Infantry).  He was an expert rifleman as well.  He wanted to go MARSOC and I think he would've gone that way if he'd lived. 

FF: John was so good at facing challenges.  He loved that.  He loved a good challenge and he never backed down from one.  

PF: When he was killed, he was a Lance Corporal but had he not gotten in trouble he would've been a Corporal.  That was only after about a year and a half.  He didn't even make it two years in the Marine Corps before he was killed.  He did really well for the short time he was in.  We thought he should receive the Bronze Star and he was actually put in for it, but the Marine Corps is very stringent when it comes to awards.  The Army seems to hand those out a little more easily but not the Marines.  We felt like he deserved it for his actions on that day.  He received the commendation right below it.  


What were you thinking when he decided to join?  Did you feel nervous about it?

PF: I was nervous when he joined because I didn't want him going to Afghanistan.  Because he was at Camp Pendleton with the 5th Marines, his deployment was like two months after getting out of SOI.  He finished SOI in February and was gone in March.  His buddy who was at 29 Palms didn't get deployed for almost two years after SOI.  We knew that his whole unit wanted to go to Afghanistan.  He'd call us and you'd hear them in the background yelling and laughing.  They were partying.  You could hear them in the back and they were just so thrilled (laughs).  We went and picked up his truck and drove it back here.  They let him come back right before his deployment.  One of his brothers had a going away party for him.  You just hope that everything goes well when they go over there.    


Can you tell people what it's like being a mother whose son is overseas?

PF: I was worried all the time when he was over there.  When he first would call us they were just getting their patrol base built up.  They were moving around a bit but mostly just clearing areas and building their base.  Then I remember one of his last calls wasn't a very good call.  When they first got to Afghanistan there wasn't too much activity.  From the end of March to June things started to pick up.  I remember that last call and him saying, "It's gotten really bad.  The Taliban is giving us a really hard time.  It's bad enough that I'm using all of my training and then some."  They'd lost their automatic weapons guy who was wounded so John took that position.  He was handling a M-240B.  The battalion commander told us he'd hold it up just like a regular rifle and fire from that position.  He told us, "I don't know how John held it like that but he did."  He'd had no training on that particular weapon.  It was a Thursday that we talked to him and that was it.  That was the last time we talked to him before he was gone.      


What would you tell a parent whose son is about to go over there? 

PF: You always wait for the phone calls.  We were sending lots of packages to the guys.  You just have to try not to worry or you'll drive yourself crazy.  Things seemed to be okay but when he called me that Thursday then we knew it was harder.  My anxiety levels went up a lot after that.  Felix and I are big news watchers so you're always hearing different things.  Sometimes it's best to stay away from the news.  Before he was killed you could tell he was pretty worried.  We received a video from him and we received that just before he was killed.  It was within days.

FF: That video was hard for me to watch.  It was a really sad video for me to watch.  He looked so sad to me and the way he talked it seemed like he knew he wasn't coming back.  That made it really hard.    

PF: Some of his buddies told us that he didn't think he was going to come home.  Another weird thing was that I know you guys all write a letter in case you're killed.  Well that letter isn't supposed to come to the family unless something happens of course.  Ours was mailed to us before he was killed.  I just remember thinking, "What the heck is this?"  We were wondering why we received that letter.  There was supposed to be something on it that said not to open it.  Well that wasn't on there so we opened it.    


What do you remember about the time leading up to John's death?

PF: The day before John was killed we were both working in Austin.  On my lunch hour I was talking to one of John's staff sergeants who was actually at Bethesda Hospital.  He was visiting with the wounded Marines.  He was talking to me on the phone and we were having a pretty general conversation.  We started talking about the wounded guys.  He mentioned some of the parents being there.  I asked him about the protocol for when one of the Marines would die.  He said to me, "You really want to know about this?"  I said, "Well yeah, tell me."  I sure would've never thought John would die the next day.  Felix and I were in a van pool to Austin where we worked.  I got this call from the 4th Recon Marines based in San Antonio.  They asked where I was and I said, "I'm at work."  I was thinking, "Hmmm, this is weird." 

I said, "Where are you guys?"  I was remembering the protocol that the staff sergeant had told me.  I dropped the phone and screamed.  People came running.  One of my coworkers ran over to me to console me.  Her son was with the 5th Marine Division as well.  She was sitting across from me and she grabbed me.  I remember when we got back to the house two Marines were sitting in front of our house.  They took me into a room with supervisors and some other people.  I had to call Felix and they didn't want me to tell him.  Like me, he guessed what happened.  My only son was gone.  John was on a rooftop and he was fighting hard against the enemy when he died.  A bullet struck him in the upper chest and it went down through him.  He didn't live for very long after that.  He died quickly.      

FF: I was in my work's main office celebrating birthdays.  When she called me I knew immediately what happened.  I was in the Army so I knew the protocol for these kind of things.  I knew the worst thing had happened.  I'll never forget that moment.  That was the hardest day.  It was the worst of my life.  



What do you remember about the days after that?

PF: We called our daughter after John died and she came down as quickly as possible.  She lives in north Fort Worth.  I moved the computer down to the dining table.  There were cars covering the neighborhood of our family.  You couldn't move around inside our house there were so many people.  There were news crews outside too.  People were there to support us and brought us food and whatever we needed.  The two young men that were CACOs (Casualty Assistance Calls Officer) were just absolutely incredible young men and we are still friends.  They were there for us every step of the way.  Ryan Miller is one of them who we are still really close to.  They were both standing at the front of the house waiting for us when John was first killed.  I don't remember the initial moments after that.  It was all just too shocking and horrible.  I just remember making calls to family later that day.  Felix has a huge, huge family so they all came out.  I don't have any family here in South Texas but all of his family came out.  My daughter and I went to Dover Air Force Base to receive the body.  There was an Army soldier who came off the same aircraft and his wife and family was there with us as well.  We stayed with them at the Fischer House.  He's buried right next to John at Ft. Sam Houston.  He'd stepped on an IED.  There were two other Marines on that flight as well from the 5th.  They'd both been killed in action as well.  We let the press photograph his body coming out of the plane in the transfer box.  A lot of people don't let the press document that part but we did.  We stayed out there for a couple days.  Felix came out here.

FF: I went out to Dover Air Force Base to accompany my son's body back to New Braunfels.  

PF: Usually the CACO goes with the family to accompany them but John's staff sergeant wanted to go instead.  He was the guy who'd told me about proper procedures the day before John died.  He felt so bad about all that.  He assisted Felix on the way back home.  They wanted to take his body back to Lackland but I asked them about another airstrip closer to our home.  I brought up Randolph Air Force Base which was much closer but I also knew of an airstrip in New Braunfels just down the road.  The problem is that the airstrip has to be a certain length.  The planes that bring the body in is a Kalitta Air Charters.  Connie Kalitta was a race car driver and I actually used to watch him race which was kind of ironic.  He owns a bunch of airplanes that are specifically designed to bring the bodies home. 

FF: They brought his body into the airport that's just about a mile from the house.  It's so close you can almost see it from our house.  It worked out really well for us.  

PF: The Patriot Guard lined the streets along with thousands of others.  It was the most incredible sight I've ever seen in my life.  

FF:  The airport is about 8 miles away from the funeral home.  There were people lining the streets all the way from airport to funeral home.  I can't imagine how many there were.  

PF: It was probably the largest funeral I've ever seen here.  It was absolutely amazing.  Felix's brother is a Navy SEAL and his two sons are as well.  They accompanied his body along with the Marines and Patriot Guard.  They were the ones that told me about the Coletta planes that could bring John's body back that close to our home.  Coletta does that for free for all service members.  He's a real patriot.  When we got into the cars from the funeral home we made a right onto 1102 out here, Comal ISD had the streets lined with their trucks.  All of the people were standing out there with the trucks.  That's John's school district.  I can't explain that feeling.  The funeral was over by the time everyone got to the ceremony.  That's how packed it was.  There were people lining the highways, firetrucks holding our flag over the overpass, and crowds everywhere.  It stunned me.  I don't think we've ever seen anything like that before.  San Antonio and the New Braunfels community was amazing.  When I saw the flag hanging from those firetrucks it really hit me hard.  

FF: When we had the viewing it was for the family for an hour.  We opened the viewing up to everyone else though because we'd already seen John's body.  They started the viewing at 2:30 pm and there were people coming to see him until the funeral home closed at 9 pm.  Everyone was offering their condolences.  It was nonstop.  

PF: I didn't sit down one time.  There were so many people that I couldn't sit down.  I didn't know most of them.  

FF: My brother who was a Navy SEAL and his sons kept people from streaming in all at a time.  They just let in a few at a time to offer their condolences.  It was an all day kind of thing.  It was amazing.  


What do you remember about your feelings after?

PF: There was another Marine that was supposed to be there that day.  Supposedly he was sick, so John went in his place that day.  John ended up being killed.  When we found that out we were pretty upset.  There have been some things said about whether or not that Marine was actually sick.  It's very upsetting to me but that Marine had a wife and kids.  We don't blame him.  If you believe in God you know that there was a reason everything happened the way it did.  John was single and this guy had a family.  I think that God probably wanted him there instead of this young man.  That helps me.  The Marines that were a part of the unit know what really happened that day.  They don't talk to this young man anymore.  We still talk to him though and we don't hold things against him.  I don't know that he'd be around if we stopped talking to him.  He already blames himself and suffers from pretty heavy depression.  We want him to lead a good life.    




How has the Marine community supported you since John's death?

PF: Speaking for myself, the Marines have made it much easier on us since John died.  We are pretty close with all of his squad mates.  We keep in close contact with them, we go see them, we go to their weddings.  The weddings are super hard because I know my son will never have a wedding.  It's hard when I see them having kids too.  I'm happy for them but sad because I know my John will never have children.  These guys are truly amazing though.  They come down for our golf tournament we host every year.  

FF: We formed a foundation for scholarships.  The golf tournament is what brings in a lot of the money for these scholarships.  The community has really supported that golf tournament.  It's awesome.

PF: If you look at my friends on Facebook, they're all John's friends.  They're his friends.  They're Marines and families of Marines.  I probably don't even know half of them.  They loved John.  


A "thank you" note from a recent graduate of Texas A&M.  The student received the John Felix Farias Scholarship which financially aided him in reaching graduation day.  

What are you doing in memorial of John now and what are you looking to do in the future?

PF:  Gruene Harley Davidson started a motorcycle ride in the memory of John on May 24, 2014 and then we changed it to become Semper Fi Fest in May 2015 and it now honors the memory of two other Marines who were killed as well.  We are trying to open it up to everyone.  Gruene Harley Davidson out here puts it on for us.  

What advice would you give to new Gold Star mothers?

PF: John's best friend, Thomas Spitzer, who joined with him on the buddy system was killed three days earlier than John and three years after him.  He was killed 6/25/14 in the same place John was killed, Sangin, Afghanistan.  I try to do as much for his mother as I possibly can.  

FF: He was a good friend to John and he was killed three years after him.  Every time we would come visit John at Camp Pendleton, he'd drive the 2-3 hours from 29 Palms to see all of us.  We'd all spend time together.  That was really special.

PF: Thomas was a wonderful kid.  John and him did everything together.  They grew up together, played football together, power-lifted together.  Helping his mother in her time of grieving has helped me a little.  She thinks I'm so strong but I'm really not.  I try to be so strong in front of people but these days I cry a whole lot more than I used to.  It's gotten harder in recent years and not easier.  Things seem to get to me more easily.  I don't know what the difference is but things have gotten worse for me.  One of the other Gold Star mothers told me that things actually get worse as time passes.  It's gotten harder.  I never stop thinking about him.  All his pictures are on my phone and I talk to his buddies all the time.  I deal with the pain every day.         

What's been the most therapeutic thing for you since John died?

PF: John's Marine buddies have been the best thing for me since he died.  They've helped heal me the most.  One of his buddies, Adam, who's MARSOC just left for some area I don't think I can mention.  This guy comes and spends every Memorial Day with us.  He comes for the entire weekend on his own time.  He comes to Semper Fi Fest as well.  I worry about his friends that are in all the time.  John's other friend, Nate, who you've seen in some of the pictures with Nate has a service dog.  Nate named that dog Johnny after John because that's what the other Marines called him.  Nate brought Johnny to John's graveside and that's the picture you see in our living room.  Nate lives in Maine now but Johnny helps him tremendously with his PTSD.  Operation Canine trained him out here in New Braunfels.  I remember when Nate brought Johnny to John's graveside.  He turned and faced the headstone like he knew John.  It was amazing.         


What do you remember about John's childhood?

FF: I remember him starting T-ball when he was five years old.  We used to go watch him all the time.  I remember those kids at that age were so funny.  John would be playing left field but he'd be sitting on the ground in left field playing in the dirt (laughs).  He wasn't paying attention at all.  We have all that on video still.  When he started 7th grade, I still remember going to his scrimmage at New Braunfels Canyon.  The first time he carried the ball he went 63 yards untouched.  He was as fast as lightning.  That was such a surprise to me because I didn't realize he was that good.  I'll never forget that.  He also played city league basketball when he was younger as well.  He loved football and he loved contact.  That's why he played defensive end.  He loved to hit.  He also loved the water and loved swimming.  He became a lifeguard at the Comal River in high school.  I remember how much he loved going to South Padre Island when he was young.  He'd always bring some friends of his because he was the only son.  We had some awesome experiences.  


What do you remember about his character?

FF: As a kid, he was always so good to his friends.  He got along with everyone really well.  He was such a happy kid.  We tried to make him as happy as we could... You know why I keep looking up to the second floor right now?  John used to always have me throw him a bottle of water from down here.  He was being lazy and didn't want to come down the stairs (laughs).  I miss that.  I can still see him standing there now.  


What was it like for you to be the father of the Marine?

FF: To me, the Marines are the best in the military except for the Special Operations guys.  I have a younger brother who was a Navy SEAL and his sons are SEALs as well.  I was so proud of my son being a Marine.  I still remember how awesome his graduation was.  He was so proud to be a Marine.  

What do you remember about him deploying?

FF: I remember when I found out he was going to deploy.  Back then, I read the Bible on a daily basis.  I started reading it just to give me strength.  I prayed that he stayed safe.  Psalm 91 was the one that I like a lot about protection.  I was at my work celebrating birthdays in the office when Penny called me.  After that, I just kept saying, "No, no, no!"  The people in my workplace asked what was wrong.  They grabbed me and started praying for me and Penny.  It's tough because I remember hugging him as a little boy.  I always hugged John.  I still remember those things and it makes it worse now.  I know that I'll never have the privilege of hugging my only son again.  Even when he went to high school I hugged him every day and I'd tell him how much I loved him.  He'd say to me, "I love you too dad."  It's been hard.  I miss him every single day.   


What do you remember about the days following?

FF: After his burial, I was crying out on the inside.  I wanted to show strength at the funeral home.  After that, I would get in my pickup truck and take the back roads out here.  I would just let it all out on those drives.  I had to just let everything out.  Those tears are necessary because sometimes I just can't hold it in anymore.  When I miss him, I go visit him at Ft. Sam.  We take some chairs with us and sit there.  It makes us feel better knowing he's in heaven.  My life has never been the same since he was killed though.  My wife wants me to eat but I haven't had an appetite since he died.  Food doesn't really seem very important.  Nothing really seems as important anymore.  


How much did you lean on Penny after John's death?

FF: We talked about how we could sustain a positive attitude.  It's been very hard for both of us but we help each other out through this time.  That makes it easier for sure but it doesn't change the fact that it's still terribly tough every single day.  


What would you tell fathers that are faced with your burden?

FF: My advice to fathers facing my kind of loss is to build your spiritual life.  You're going to need strength from somewhere else because your strength alone won't be enough.  That way you can achieve some type of peace and understanding.  


What were you most proud of with your son?

FF: There are a couple of things I'm proud of.  I'm super proud that my son made it to Eagle Scout.  I remember he wanted to quit his last year before he became on but mama is very pushy (laughs).  She got him to finish and I'm proud that he did it.  The other thing is that he was a Marine.  I know that he loved being in the Marine Corps.   


A portrait of John Farias with his best friend, Thomas Spitzer.  Spitzer was killed in combat three years after John passed, also in Sangin, Afghanistan.  

What's helped you the most since John passed?

FF: The most therapeutic thing for me has been staying in church.  Having his friends come over and visit makes it like a giant family.  That keeps us going.  We keep in touch with a lot of John's old friends that that's so helpful.   


"What A Marine."  The title on the New Braunfels Herald Zeitung incites chills.  I think it's important to fervently honor the service and sacrifices of those who've paid the greatest price.  But, I see it a little differently now that I started this project.  I think the most important part of paying respects, is honoring the human and individual.  John was a Marine and a magnificent one at that but he was also a son and a brother.  His parents will always remember John the five year old t-baller, sitting in the outfield, playing in the dirt.  They will remember those Friday night lights washing over the green grass as John tenaciously rushed the passer as the Cougar Stadium crowd roared. 

They will remember John the Eagle Scout.  They will remember John the lifeguard working on the Comal River under that Texas summer sun.  They will remember John the war-fighter whose ascendance into manhood happened right before their eyes on video a few weeks before he tragically passed.  Last but certainly not least, they will remember their son, gone far too soon and his harrowing sacrifice that helped continue to pave the way for our greatest liberties.  Let's honor our warrior's sacrifice, remember them, revere and cherish the families who will never see that warrior again.  


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Gold StarTim K
The Chick Family (White Star)

Staff Sergeant Carter Chick was one of the first veterans I covered for The Veterans Project when I started the blog roughly four years ago throughout the duration of my Master's Degree.  At the time, I barely knew what I was doing and I had almost no technical knowledge as a photographer.  What I did have was a passion for my brothers and the highest level of esteem for a man who taught me what leadership truly was.  Carter was one of my best friends from my unit but he was also my greatest mentor in a combat zone.  He was tough but he was equally fair.  I remember that a positive praise from SSG Chick meant the world to me.  I knew his family before I ever met them.  He spoke about them non-stop on our deployment to Iraq and I remember particularly how proud he was of his son Chad's budding baseball career.  As a college baseball player myself, Carter was constantly asking for advice that could assist Chad in his growth.  Things changed when we got home as they always do after deployments.  I got out of the Army and went back to school to finish my academic and baseball career.  Carter stayed in an active duty role at Ft. Bliss.  We stayed in touch as his time in the Army came to a close and he prepared to start his life as a civilian.  I remember those days being particularly painful for him.  We often had late night conversations that revolved around him having no idea what he was going to do with the rest of his life.

Carter and I were very different in that way.  I thrived as a civilian whereas he took off the uniform and that was all he knew.  It had been the foundation of his existence for the better part of 20 years.  He felt exposed without that armor and I saw it when I spent time with him.  When I covered him for the project, I remember one of the most confident men in the world suddenly looking like a shell of himself.  Most of his adult life was spent dedicated to the Marine Corps and the Army.  Instantaneously, that was all gone.  He wrestled tremendously with that and I remember his struggles becoming more and more inimical.  I won't get into the particulars of our conversations but I could tell he felt like his life was lacking purpose.  Those discussions became increasingly dark towards the end.  To tell you the truth, they still haunt me in many ways.  Then, one day, he was gone.  I got the call and I remember feeling as though I was having some bizarre, gruesome out of body experience where I could visualize my own sense of shock.  He'd taken his own life and that was it.  No more Carter Chick.  No more mentor.  No more late night conversations.  No more ragging on each other about our sports allegiances.  No more laughing 'til I cried over his stories of his young Marine days.  No more comfort from a man that believed in me more than almost anyone else.  

I didn't cry right away.  Those tears came later as I began to feel the absence and anger associated with some form of resentment.  My first thoughts were directly diverted to his family.  What would his wife Nikki do?  How did she tell Colt and Chad, their two sons?  What would life look like for them from this point forward?  Then, for the first time, I experienced some form of bitterness.  I was angry with him.  I couldn't believe he'd done this to a family that he loved so much.  When the tears first came, they were searing droplets, extensions of both dejection and exasperation.  As time passed, I thought a lot about his family and wondered what their journey forward would entail.  The Veterans Project began to grow as a platform, and much of that success was attributed to the burning passion Carter established in my heart.  His death inaugurated a fire in my heart that's hard to explain.  

He was and still is, my greatest drive to light on this path of capturing legacies.  But... what about his family?  Where would their story take them?  It certainly didn't end at his passing.  Over the past two years, I've had an incessant guilt riddling my conscience.  It was easier to push into the work of The Veterans Project, head down, blinders on, then to think about those left behind.  The truth is, I knew what I had to do but I didn't know how to embark on such a strenuous excursion.  After all, I didn't know what it was like to get that call.  I didn't know what it felt like to know your dad, husband, son, mother, wife, daughter wasn't coming home.  Then again, that's the power of the individual experience.   I didn't really know what it was like to be my veterans either.  I simply had experiences that were similar to their's, but that experience didn't exactly parallel because truly, no experience can.  With that in mind, I decided to tackle this work fully realizing the cataclysmic weight of these stories.  There is no way to truly describe the burden a family faces in the path of loss.  So, the goal of this particular work is to let the caregivers tell the story themselves.  Nothing in this introduction can possibly illuminate the dark spaces like the narrative of those who've lived it.  Here's the Chick Family.       



What do you remember about your husband when you first met?  What drew you to him?  

Nikki: I met my husband (SSG Carter Chick) on June 9, 2003, at Cowboys Redriver.  It was "Urban Cowboy" night.  I am not sure what exactly drew me to Carter, but it had something to do with his eyes.  He asked me to dance and our first dance was to Johnny Lee's "Looking for love in all the wrong places."  Looking back, that was funny because we were in a bar.  At the end of the night, he told me he was going to marry me and I told him he was crazy (laughs).


What was the wedding day like?  

Nikki: Our wedding day was a blur.  We were married a year to the day that we met, June 9, 2004.  We got married at the Alexandra Mansion in Garland, Texas.  It was a small but very nice ceremony with just our family and closest friends.  I do remember that he was late to the wedding (laughs).  The boys in the wedding party played golf in the morning and they weren't paying attention to the time.


Can you describe Carter Chick from your perspective of him as his wife?  

Nikki: Carter loved his family.  The boys and I were everything to him.  He loved his boys so much.  He was very proud of them.  He wanted them both to be great men, better than he was.  He wanted them to be able to do anything and everything that they wanted to.  He was not the typical romantic man, but he showed his love every day through the little things that he did.  He loved his time in the military.  It was very important to him.


Picture: Nikki stands next to the bathroom door where Carter left her a message before his last deployment to Iraq.  

Can you talk about the day that Carter took his own life?  

Nikki: A lot of the day my husband passed is a blur or maybe I blocked it out.  When the sheriff told me, I didn't believe him.  In fact, I called his cell phone when I hung up with the sheriff.  It hit when the sheriff answered Carter's phone.  I called my parents first and then I called some family and friends.  When the family got to the house, I stopped making calls and let them handle that.  I don't remember much about the days that followed.  The first night, I remember seeing Carter in my dream.  He was very clear, standing beside my bed while I laid there and he told me he was sorry.


What do you remember about him as a soldier?  

Nikki: My husband was a very proud soldier.  He felt like any guys under him were his absolute responsibility.  He was very serious about his job and loved it.  He was my hero.


What was the hardest thing about being a military spouse?

Nikki: The time apart was the hardest thing about being a military wife.  We spent the majority of our marriage apart.  One month after we married, Carter's unit was called up to deploy to Iraq.  Not being on post was a challenge, and being 3 hours away was even worse.  We made it work because we wanted our children to be raised in one town and not moved around.  That was very important to us.  


What did you do for the kids to help them when Carter was gone?  

Nikki: While Carter was deployed I kept Chad and Colt busy with sports or planning activities with family and friends.  We'd make care packages to send to dad.  I still remember one time Colt jumping in the box and asked me to send him to daddy (laughs).  He must have been about three at the time.


Do you remember some of the toughest moments when he was gone and what specifically were they?  

Nikki: One moment that I remember being particularly hard was right after he returned to Iraq from his mid tour leave.  I got pregnant while he was on leave.  A few weeks after he returned, I found out that the baby was gone.  When I went to the doctor, they couldn't find a heartbeat.  I miscarried and had a hard time not having Carter home with me.


What was it like when your husband came home from deployments?  Could you tell any difference when he he came back?

Nikki: It was hard when he came home from deployments.  After his first deployment to Iraq, I noticed a major change in him.  He startled easily and didn't like being around others, not even extended family.  It was also hard because our oldest, Chad, and I had fallen into a routine without his help and we had to adapt to having Carter home and a part of that routine. 


What were the greatest things about your marriage?  

Nikki: The strength of our love was the greatest thing about marriage and the fact that we balanced each other out really well.  Although we liked a lot of the same things, we were very different too.  He challenged me to have more fun and I challenged him to be more romantic.


Having lived the life of a soldier’s wife what would you do differently if you could go back?  

Nikki: If I could go back I'd be more of an advocate for Carter's health and lack of care when he was waiting to be medically discharged.


How's it been in dealing with the Army and benefits since losing Carter?  

Nikki: Dealing with the Army since he passed has been extremely hard.  I'm still having problems getting them to pay and make his grave marker.  I'm not sure what the hold up is on that.  I've provided everything that they've asked for.  The insurance has been good but that's the only benefit we still receive.  His pay stopped and I was told we didn't qualify for any other benefits besides insurance.


What are some of the greatest difficulties of being in a White Star family?

Nikki: The hardest part about being a White Star Family is others not understanding.  I always worry about the boys and how they will handle the issue as they get older. 


What advice would you give to those who’ve recently lost a veteran to suicide?  

Nikki: If I could give any advice to anyone who's lost their soldier, Marine, or sailor to suicide I'd say, "Take it one day at a time."  Some days can be good days, and it's okay to have a good day.  Don't feel guilty about that.  Your veteran would want that for you.  Carter and I talked a lot about what he wanted for me if anything ever happened to him.  He wanted me to find someone else to love and take care of our boys.  He wanted me to find someone that would love me as much as he did.  Don't let others tell you the way you deal with grief is wrong or that you should deal with it a specific way.  Everyone deals with things differently.  There is no right way to handle grief.  


What’s been the most therapeutic thing for you since Carter passed on? 

Nikki: Staying busy with Colt has been the most therapeutic thing for me since Carter passed.  Chad's off on his own now so it's just me and Colt.  Getting out of the house, even when I didn't want to, makes things easier in finding our new normal.  I like to read a good book or find time to go to the spa when I can.   


Can you talk about teaching and why that’s so important to you?  How does teaching improve or affect your daily life since Carter passed away?

Nikki: I love teaching.  I love seeing children excited about something that we do in class together.  Teaching kept me busy and allowed me not to think about my husband being gone.  The staff at my school respected my space and just let me be while I was grieving.  They supported me when I needed it and let me be alone when I needed that.  I don't think I would have made it through this without several of them.  




What are your favorite memories of your father? 

Chad: My best memories of my dad have to do with baseball.  Me and him could sit down and watch the Rangers game and not even speak.  Everything was perfect when we were together like that.  We'd just look at each other and know exactly what that player did wrong or right.  We were always in sync because he taught me everything about the sport.  He used to play baseball when he was young and so he took that knowledge and passed it on to me.  I remember playing catch with him.  I'd always pitch to him and he'd be my catcher.  When Colt was in practice during t ball we'd go to the field next to it and play catch, so he could watch Colt and teach me at the same time.  That was awesome.  I loved that.  I could never look at him when I pitched during a game because I was always so nervous.  I was always trying to make him proud.  I sucked when I could see him.  He'd walk down the left field foul line and my pitching would completely change.  We even experimented with it at Field of Dreams out in Mansfield.  It was about the second inning and I was really struggling.  He moved from the bleachers and walked down the foul line to another spot where I couldn't see him and all of a sudden I was striking everyone out (laughs).


Was it tough having your dad gone all the time on deployments?

Chad: The toughest part about my dad being gone was not having him there to watch my baseball games.  That was our thing.  Him watching me play baseball and watching baseball with him was the best thing in the world.  I understood that he had to miss birthdays and Christmas and other holidays like that.  That's part of being a soldier.  It just hurt not having him there to do our thing together, which was always baseball.  I was never scared for my dad because I always prayed.  I knew that he was in God's hands and I always knew that if something did happen it was meant to happen.  I could play it back in my head any which way but that wouldn't change my dad being gone.  His training was great and he was an incredible leader so I knew those things could keep him safe or give him a better chance of living.  I remember his first deployment and being a little scared because I was five or six.  Still, I knew he was going to work and that was what he loved.  He loved being a Marine and soldier.    


Was it hard watching other kids with their dads when your dad wasn't there?  

Chad: Sometimes it was hard watching the other kids with their dads there while mine wasn't.  But, I always told myself, "My dad is better than their dad (laughs)."  I always thought, "My dad is defending our freedom while your dad is sitting at a desk or selling cars.  My dad is way more of a badass than your dad (laughs)."  I remember thinking that when I'd get sad.  


What do you remember about the day that you found out about your dad?  

Chad: I remember my aunt waking me up.  I thought it was weird because she lives in McKinney which isn't close to Royse City at all.  I remember thinking, "That's weird."  I remember walking into the living room and I saw everyone was there.  Our whole family was there so I knew something was wrong.  My first thought was, "Who died?"  The last time we'd gathered like that, my grandma had passed away.  I knew something was wrong and I could tell mom had been crying.  She didn't come out and say it was suicide right way.  She told me that my dad was out with his friend Jeff hunting and one of them had tripped and the gun went off.  I knew that wasn't the true story right away.  

My dad had phenomenal trigger discipline and I knew he wouldn't make that mistake.  I started to put the pieces together and I found out from research that one of his guys had died on that same day years before in Iraq.  They were best friends over there and my dad blamed himself in a lot of ways for his death.  It wasn't my dad's fault but he blamed himself.  When it hit me, I walked out to the backyard and started to cry.  I sat on the deck for about an hour.  He'd called me the night before at 2 a.m. and all those thoughts went through my head.  I hadn't answered that night and I wonder if I'd answered if things would be different.  I remember two of my friends came over here right away and they were there for me.  To this day, I still think he's going to walk through the door.  It sucks.      


What are the toughest things in your life now that he's gone?  

Chad: The toughest thing for me is knowing my dad isn't here for advice.  Even the simple things are hard.  I'm really into guns and my dad could build them like there was no tomorrow.  I first bought an AR and I wanted to add a free floating handrail so I needed a low-profile gas block put on but it only had the regular A2 front-site gas block.  In my mind, I thought I'll just call dad and ask him.  Then I thought, "I can't."  I ended up having to take it to a gunsmith.  It's hard not to be able to call for any advice.  He's definitely my drive to work harder every day.  He's a huge part of why I want to join the Marines.  My mom thinks I'm chasing something and I think she's right but I don't know what that is yet.  


What do you think your dad taught you that will impact you in joining the Marines?

Chad: My dad made me strong-willed and mentally prepared me for a lot.  If he hadn't taught me how to be a man and how to hold emotions in when you need to, I probably wouldn't be here right now.  It's ironic that the lessons he taught me are the same things that helped me when he passed away.  I have friends that tell me I'm as strong as hell and that's because of my dad.  He taught me what real leadership looks like.  I think that'll definitely help me when I join the Marines.


What's it been like dealing with his suicide?

Chad: I was very depressed when my dad died because it didn't seem like something he'd do.  When you think of my dad, the first thing that comes to my mind is, "badass."  He was a Marine, did two combat tours with them, then did two tours of combat with the Army.  He's a special kind of guy.  When he was 13, he didn't go to a regular school.  He went to the Marine Military Academy and was a Golden Gloves boxer.  He was definitely bred for the job.  He was born to serve.  He was a hard ass at times but it was always good for me.  He was definitely a badass.  I just couldn't imagine him doing what he did to himself.


Picture: Chad holds up Carter's golden glove boxing jacket from his high school varsity days at the Marine Military Academy

Has your dad's suicide changed your perception of mental issues that our guys face in coming back?  

Chad: I know that you guys see stuff over there that you're not always meant to see.  Post traumatic stress is a real thing and you might not think so but when you see a grown man cry over loud noises or things like that, you know it's very real.  My dad was a complete hardass and he still would get upset over things like that.  It definitely changes your perspective on the issues that our soldiers and Marines face over there.  I want to help the veteran community because I hate seeing these guys go through these things.  I hated watching my dad go through some of the things he did.   My dad had to do some unspeakable things for the service of his nation and he came back and got treated like shit in a lot of ways.  More than anything, it pisses me off.  


Do you wish your dad would've talked with you more about the things he went through over there?  

Chad: Sometimes I wish he would've talked more about Iraq, just so I could have insight into his experiences.  Maybe it could've helped me understand why he did some of the things he did when he got back.  When he first got back from Iraq in '05 I think I was six or seven.  I wanted to stay up every night with him and I remember hearing some things about his time over there I probably shouldn't have heard at such an early age.  He was drinking when he told me those things and he wasn't a drunk but the alcohol definitely helped him cope with some of those things.  It's not a healthy way to deal with those things though.  There needs to be other ways to do that.  


How much has your mom done for you?  

Chad: I work in the air conditioning service and make about twelve dollars an hour.  I try to always show my mom how much I appreciate her on Mother's Day by treating her about as well as I can with the money I have.  She deserves a mansion on one of the Fiji Islands, with a Rolls-Royce.  She deserves the best.  Without her, I wouldn't be the man I am today.  I wouldn't be as respectful as I am towards women.  Quite honestly, I'd probably be a douchebag (laughs).  She's made me into the man I am today.  If I ever won the lottery, she'd definitely get a brand new house and enough money to where she'd never have to work another day in her life.  She did everything when my dad was gone on deployment and now she does the same since he's passed.  She deserves the world.  


If you could tell your dad anything right now what would you tell him?

Chad: If my dad was here I'd want to beat the shit out of him for what he's put my family through.  Although, part of me definitely would want to say, "I miss you."  That would be followed by a lot of "why?"  I want to tell him how much I love him but I can't now.  I'd ask him for advice in joining the Marines.  The one thing I always wanted was to serve with my dad in a combat zone.  I always wanted to deploy with him.  I wanted to see him in his element.  I could ask guys about him all day and have them tell me different things but I never got to see him over there.  I always wanted that.  


What would you say to civilians about having a dad in the military?

Chad: It's hard having a father in the military.  Show a little respect to those who serve and the families that are back here because they're going through a lot more than you even think.  If my dad hadn't gone over there, your dad would've had to go.  Someone has to pay the tab.  


What are your goals moving forward and how has your dad driven you?  

Chad: My goals are to join the Marine Corps and make it through bootcamp without too many problems (laughs).  I have a little bit of my dad in me so that might be a little bit of an issue.  My dad's driven me to be a stronger man and I definitely look at life differently because of him.  I want to get out of the Corps at least one rank higher than him (laughs).  He makes me want to be the best possible Marine and leader I can be.  I want to be a guy like him who could be depended upon when shit hits the fan.  I want to be loved like he was by guys like you.  I believe he's given me a lot of skill that will one day make me a good leader.  I didn't know his military side all that well but I do know guys said he was a phenomenal leader.  A lot of people looked up to him.  

How important is it for you to be a positive influence in your little brother's life now that your dad is gone? 

Chad: My brother is only ten so he wasn't around dad as much and didn't get taught as many of the lessons that I did.  Every time I come home I try to toughen him up a little bit for the real world like dad did for me.  No matter how strong you are, the world will beat you down and I think it's important for Colt to realize that.  It's my time to teach my little brother what it means to be a man.  I want to see him be strong and not feeling sorry for himself.  I know that feeling sorry for yourself holds you back from a lot of good things in life.  He's smart as hell.  He's much smarter than me and my dad.  He already wants to go to Baylor.  If you'd asked me what school I wanted to go to at his age, it would've been the United States Marine Corps.  I do things differently now that I know he's looking up to me.  There are certain bad decisions I might've made before, where I knew my dad could tell him I wasn't doing the right thing.  Now, there's no more of that excuse.  I have to be the man that he looks up to.    




What's been the hardest thing since your dad died?  

Colt: It's hard knowing my dad can't support me anymore or help me with things.  I miss him being here.  


What did you learn most from your dad?

Colt: The biggest lesson from my dad was to not be a wuss.  


How did your dad impact you in your life?

Colt: I always try to work harder because of my dad.  I repeat things in school if I think I should to.  He makes me work harder on my schoolwork because I know it's the right thing to do.  


Who's helped you out the most since he's been gone? 

Colt: My mom has helped the most since dad's been gone.  My mom's always been there to support me.  She always cheers me on and helps me with anything I need.  She never looks down on me.  


What were your favorite things about your dad?  

Colt: Dad was always funny and spending time with him was always awesome.  We watched movies and played "zombies" on X Box.  


What would you tell someone about losing your dad if they were your age?  

Colt: I would tell any kid my age that you shouldn't take your dad for granted.  One day he might not be there and you'll miss him like I miss mine.  


When I see the Chick family at present, I see the strength and perseverance of Carter's wife, Nikki.  I see a woman that's long been the proverbial glue, holding the family together through the extreme rigors of a military life and now the even more difficult circumstance of losing Carter.  I see two sons that are now without the mentorship of their father as they enter some of the most important years of their life.  I often wonder what things would be like if Carter was still around.  I wonder what it would be like if the boys still had their dad and Nikki still had her husband.  I can't imagine those hard lonely nights, and the question of "why?" always resonating.  The fact is that question of "why?" will most likely never be answered this side of eternity.  That lack of clarity is one of the most painful parts of a lingering loss.     



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