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.