Deborah Tainsh, author and Gold Star Mom, has compiled the stories of over two dozen Gold Star Families. These families give us an answer to the question that is often asked about our fallen heroes: 'Where do we find such men and women?' Through the writings of these devastated parents, as they open their hearts and share their children with us, it is so apparent that every one of our heroes was the result of amazing parents.
In the acknowledgments for this book, Deb Tainsh says:
...I wish with all my heart that such a book as this never had to be written. But unfortunately, this is planet earth and...humans are burdened with not only the joys of living, but also the pain.
The pain in these pages cries out so loudly, that it is a painful book to read. With incredible honesty, each of the contributors to this book share their journey of initial denial, to anger, to unimaginable agony, and what they each do to survive such a loss. Many of them struggle with relationship issues within their marriages, as they try to come to terms with their own personal grief.
Having said that, this is a book also filled with tremendous courage and laughter, and so many memories. Each of the parents recounts the births and formative years of their beloved children.
US Army Chaplain Col. John C. Powledge says in the foreword:
...these are also stories of triumph, and in each families story we find the reason for America's strength...
Indeed we do, and as we meet each of the families sharing their children with us, it is evident in every word, just how strong are the families of our fallen that nurture and raise the future heroes of the nation.
The first story is of a hero who was killed on 9/11 at the Pentagon: Navy Electronics Tech 1 Ronald Hemenway. Ronald, says mom Shirley, was a precious gift from the moment of his birth, arriving almost exactly a year after their second son, Dale, had died at six months old. Ronald was a boy who loved reading, especially encyclopedias. He also discovered a love of horses which led to an initial career in the equestrian field. Later Ronald shocked his family when he came home and told them he had joined the Navy. In 1995 he graduated at Great Lakes as the Distinguished Military Graduate of his electronics class. Stationed in Italy, he met the woman he would marry, and was finally selected - in March 2000 - from many applicants to move to Bolling Airforce Base in DC to work in the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations at the Pentagon.
A loving son, and a devoted husband to Marinella, Ronald's remains were never found. All though the day of 9/11, Shirley shares that they searched every avenue for information about Ronald, but none was found. She tells in excruciating detail of those terrible days, and how it was her family, and her church, that gathered together for strength and comfort. On March 11, 2002, Ronald's Marinella held a memorial service for Ronald, whose marker sits in Section F in Arlington, at the top of a steep hill next to a WW2 soldier.
Shirley describes how some people had trouble talking to her about her son, because no remains were ever found, and this seems to be a common theme throughout the family stories in this book. Many of the families say the loss of their child in this war changed their relationships with those around them forever. Another prevalent theme in all the lives, is how each family has chosen to focus on doing things that add meaning to the sacrifice they have made, to honour their children.
Ronald's parents became involved with TAPS, where they give back to other parents walking the same path as they find themselves on. They have also been to GITMO, as have other 9/11 families. Their health has suffered, and Shirley writes:
When we hear the word closure our response is that closure would only exist if only we could wrap our arms around Ronald again.
She knows this is not to be, and draws joy and reason to move on through their other children and grandchildren.
The importance of family - and respect for our fallen - is a major theme throughout this book. Another family is that of Army Specialist Matthew Holley. Following the loss of their only child, mum and dad, Stacey and John, lobbied for, and achieved, legislation that today sees all America's fallen heroes returned home with honour, respect and dignity on contracted private aircraft. Prior to Matthew's sacrifice, our fallen were handled as ordinary cargo. This law is a direct legacy of Matthew and his family.
In Lessons in Life that is Stacey's contribution to this book, she shares the lessons she raised Matthew with, and it is the first lesson that formed him: To whom much is given, much is expected. She retells that he told them his reasons for wanting to serve his country were: To serve a cause much greater than self.
Even as a three time national champion in Karate, and with, in Shirley's words, "a God-given talent for drawing," Matthew had many other options than military service. It was in the military, however, that Matthew was able share his love of drawing with children he met in Iraq. Matthew's last call home reinforced for his mum and dad that he had learned his lessons in life so well. He told dad John that he wanted to bring some joy and smiles to the children that had only known fear, and asked them to send crayons for them. "Doc" the medic was killed in Taji November 15, 2005.
As some of these incredible families share their hearts with us, they tell of the initial notification and how they reacted. Shirley says that when the notification officer told them, her husband said: You just killed me.
For every single one of the families in this book, we are given an intimate look at how they struggled to survive. Donna Parker, mother of Marine Sergeant Elisha "Eli" Parker, describes her family's challenges in uncharted, squally, waters of grief:
Renny [Eli's dad] and I try to practise being patient with one another... We admit to being emotionally fragile. One minute we talk about Eli with ease and the next minute tears and sadness overwhelm us. I find that extending grace to one another..., giving each other the space we need helps immensely.
As with most of the families here, the parents of Eli, who was known for his 'tender heart and strong spirit, a captivating smile and a quirky sense of humor,' find some comfort in continuing rituals that their children enjoyed. In the Parker family, the "Golden Squirrel" figures large, and was the cause of much merriment among Eli and his siblings. (You have to read the book to enjoy that particular hilarity!). Although the original golden squirrel was buried with Eli, there is now a Golden Squirrel Trophy for the Sergeant Eli Parker Memorial Dodgeball Tournament, and Eli's spirit lives on.
At the end of her essay, Donna includes a T. Roosevelt quote:
“In the battle of life, it is not the critic who counts; nor the one who points out how the strong person stumbled, or where the doer of a deed could have done better. The credit belongs to the person who is actually in the arena; whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly; ...[...] spends oneself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement; and who at worst, if he or she fails, at least fails while daring greatly."
Every single one of the fallen heroes we meet in this book dared greatly, and every single parent whose heart is shared in these pages strives valiantly. Every one of them is so inspirational.
Kim Smith, mother of Private Robert Franz, recalls her reaction when told of her son's death in Baghdad, June 17, 2003:
What I remember most was the gut-wrenching ache in my stomach...Children come from our womb. I felt as if my womb had been torn to shreds. It felt like a real physical injury that hurt like nothing I had felt before.
As Kim says how important personal connections are to the families of the fallen, and how much comfort the family gains having their loved one's comrades keep in touch, she relates a hilarious story that has to be read (if you can stop chuckling as you read it!) Let's just say Pepto Bismol figures large.
Kim also echoes a common thread with many of the families. She tells the story of a butterfly visit which confirmed for her that Rob is always close by. Deb Tainsh has told the story (originally in her first book Heart of a Hawk,) about the hawk that always lets her know when her and Dave's son Patrick is close by.
Rosalind Lewis, mom of Private First Class Clayton Henson, draws comfort every time she sees a white dove that visits their family home. She knows this is her Clayton, especially since
"On the Wings of a Snow White Dove," was a song from his funeral.
All the Gold Star Families find tangible ways to honor their fallen hero. For all of them, it is important to honor and support the troops still deployed. To read all that they do is to marvel. Some attends local burials, and reach out to other families starting the same life-changing journey, so they know they are not alone. Others create foundations which continue the missions their sons held dear. Becky Mizener, proud mom of Army Private First Class Jesse Mizener, began a non profit just months after she lost Jesse, called Packed With Pride, so named because as she says: "... I packed each box with the pride of a soldier's mum. "
A lot of the parents talk of their loneliness, that is often only soothed by the love and support of their closest family, or support groups made up of those who understand the loss. Diane Layfield, mother of Marine Lance Corporal Travis Layfield says she felt as if she died the day that her son, along with nine other Marines and one Navy corpsman, died in Al Anbar, Iraq, April 6, 2004. For her, her family, her children, her mother and a support group Operation Mom that she had joined before her Travis was deployed, were what helped her survive. Diane lives what every GS family has learned the hard way: Every breath counts. Reading Travis' life story, again it is so easy to see how our heroes are formed. Diane says her son 'had the greatest compassion and most genuine heart of anyone ...ever known.' He loved to dance. Diane recounts how they celebrate Travis' life, and how their home is filled with portraits and memorabilia and rooms painted in red, white and blue.
Every parent, every hero in this book, are people I wish I could know. To hear Jackie Kenny tell it, Army Captain Christopher Kenny was welcomed into a world surrounded by laughter, and this oldest child was a constant joy his whole life. Mom Jackie shares quite a few funny stories of his exploits as a young man. With eyes always filled with laughter, Christopher was generous and kind. A mind like a sponge, he was a voracious reader who would use enforced time out in his room to pick up a book.
Christopher's early life was spent on or around the water, and his mom wryly notes the irony that her 'water baby' drowned when the humvee he was in rolled into a canal, May 3, 2004.
Today, Jackie still has what she calls her 'black cloud' envelope her, but she and Jim [Christopher's dad] have learned to respect each other's grief.
The snapshots of all these heroes' lives prove, as if any of us needed such proof, the innate decency of all that is the best of America. The preemie, two and a half pound Army Specialist Nicholas Wilson, whose mom Debbie describes him as 'good kid who was very sensitive,' ; to Army Sergeant First Class Brent Adams, who little son often sees and talks to his daddy - 'a black belt angel working with God,' and whose family and friends remember his smile, leadership, sense of humor. Brent's dad and stepmom Pam also saw the longest shooting star ever shortly after learning they had lost Brent. Pam knows that was Brent telling them: "It's okay, dad and Pam. I've arrived home and I'm okay."
Army Sergeant Brian Wood, 10.5lbs at birth, was a quiet child, a keen observer of everything going on around him. Mom Patricia tells a story of Brian at 18 months old that demonstrated his acute observation skills. No surprise either that mom says Brian also always defended the underdog. As with so many of the other parents in this book who know they have received signs from their children, Patricia relates a time - since Brian died April 16, 2004 in Tikrit, Iraq - when she saw him sitting on his sister's bed. She takes this as a sign from him, and who are we to argue? I sure don't.
As with Brian, all of the fallen hero's families in here know the same thing about their sons:
My son knew he was taking on a difficult, dangerous job. He believed in what he was doing ...helping to make the world a better place. He died serving a just cause.
Just as the other families who opened their hearts for this book relate, Patricia knows that her fallen hero wants his 'family to keep living, be happy, laugh, and enjoy the life we have. '
Marine Corporal Christopher Leon died in Ramadi in June 2006. Adopted at birth by James and Kathi Leon, this youngster loved to pull pranks and always have the last laugh, according to mum Kathi. He last talked to his parents on Father's Day, and James was able to tell his beloved Chris 'what a priviledge it was to be his father, and how much we all loved each other.'
That pride and unconditional love is the overwhelming theme throughout this book. The love just shines from the pages. Marine Sergeant Byron Lane's parents saw a bright full moon the night he was born. Mom Carol says that from the beginning they were always amazed by Byron, the compassionate young man who joined the Marines out of love and appreciation for the country that had given him so much.
Love of country is another theme here. Navy Second Class Gunners Mate (SEAL) Danny (DJ)Dietz, Jr's mom, Cindy, uses the SEAL ethos in the introduction to her essay about her rambunctious, determined, above genius, strong-willed firstborn:
My loyalty to Country and Team is beyond reproach. I humbly serve as a guardian to my fellow Americans always ready to defend those who are unable to defend themselves.
There is also so much joy as the parents share the lives of their fallen heroes. Cindy Dietz tells a hilarious story of a stunt DJ pulled when he was growing up, that will make you laugh.
Army Specialist John Young's mom, Penny , shares how she thought she would never again know happiness after she lost her son in Iraq. But she draws peace and yes, joy, in the moments when she feels John close by as if he is telling her: "I'm okay, Mom, and you're going to be okay too." Penny also shares that on the day of John's funeral, a hawk circled above, and actually swooped down right over the coffin. A few days later she met Deb Tainsh, Gold Star mom of Sgt Patrick Tainsh, and author of Heart of a Hawk.
Service and faith are also writ large in these pages of the journey of survival each of these parents. Deb Tainsh, and so many others, share how it is only by the strength of their faith in a Higher Power that they get through those days when they just want to scream. James T. Simpson, father of Marine Lance Corporal Abraham "Abe" Simpson, and uncle to Jonathan, who was also killed in Iraq, says: God gives me strength to go on.
Just as their children served their country, so do the parents continue to serve. This book is part of their ongoing service to help other Gold Star Families. Surviving the Folded Flag also should serve as a great education for all who live in this era of our countries at war. It is a clear reminder that 'every soldier is one of our own, and every soldier's family is our family.' Every Gold Star Parent who contributed to this book was asked by Deb to share advice to others who may be called to face the same situation, and share they do. This section alone is worth the cost of the book, and should be read by every American. Blue Star Mother Beverley Krause writes at the beginning of this collection:
I read this book out of respect and honor...to learn how I could better serve Gold Star Parents... Because their children volunteered to serve and sacrifice for our freedoms, we owe as much.
She is absolutely right.
DJ Dietz's mom, Cindy, concludes her essay on her son's life and service with this:
"I heard a voice saying, 'Whom shall I send and whom will go for us?' Then I said I, Here I am; send me. " Isaiah 6:8
This book made me cry, made me laugh out loud, and gave me 'dot to dot (for that reference you need to meet Vikki Carver and her fallen hero son Navy Corpsman Charles "Otter" Sare.) It also affirmed for me the courage and grace of the Gold Star Family heroes who walk among us.
You may think that this current Global War on Terror has nothing to do with you. In these pages, we meet just a few of the American heroes and their families, who prove differently. Surviving the Folded Flag: Parents of War share stories of coping, courage and faith should be on every bookshelf. It is my belief that when the history of this war is written, years from now, this book will prove to be one of the most important contributions to the archives.
Deborah Tainsh is also available for public speaking engagements.