(This is the first in a series of reports from The Fuller Center Disaster ReBuilders’ operations in North Carolina, where they are helping families recover from last September’s Hurricane Florence.)
The only people who can truly sympathize with Gold Star families are members of other Gold Star families. They know all too well the grief and the struggle to rebuild lives after losing a loved one in military service.
That sense of camaraderie has been on full display this week in New Bern, N.C., where spouses, parents and siblings of fallen service members came together to boost rebuilding efforts in a community that was inundated by flooding from Hurricane Florence last September. Their project — an Expedition service trip through the Travis Manion Foundation (a nonprofit supporting veterans and Gold Star families) — was to turn an area of classroom spaces at Neuse Forest Presbyterian Church into comfortable volunteer quarters for those who come to serve with The Fuller Center Disaster ReBuilders and their partners in the area.
The volunteers inscribed touching and funny messages in memory of their fallen heroes on the bare wood of the doorways through which hundreds of volunteers will walk in coming years. On their final day of this service week, the group’s members wore Travis Manion Foundation shirts emblazoned with Travis Manion’s motto — “If not me, then who …” — across the back. They shared laughs, teased each other and embraced like old friends. Most, though, just met this week.
This is the second Expedition for Julie Walsh, whose husband, Marine Corps Sgt. Nicholas Walsh, was killed by a sniper near Fallujah, Iraq in 2007. Last year, she helped build a home for a veteran on a reservation in New Mexico. She originally got involved to help her two sons cope with their father’s death.
“I was really doing it more for them, but now that I’ve started it, it’s such an amazing experience,” she said. “You feel like you’ve known these people your whole life. It reminds me of my husband’s brother with his Marine Corps buddies. They’re from all over and they come together — some of them know each other, some of them don’t — but they come together to get a job done and they do it for a purpose. We’re talking to each other like we’ve known each other our whole lives. We’re all connected on Facebook now, and we’re kind of spread out all over, so I thank God for social media.”
Barbara Ritter of LeClaire, Iowa, is among those who will be linked with Walsh and others long after this service trip is in the books. She lost her son, Army Sgt. Leevon Ritter, in 2012 and is serving on her fifth Expedition with the Travis Manion Foundation, her first that has taken her to a Fuller Center work site. Part of what draws her to make repeat trips is the camaraderie of Gold Star families.
“Every single person here is absolutely amazing,” she said. “They just wrap their arms around you with love and let you be who you are, and they’re there to encourage you. I just love them all.”
Mostly, though, she came to serve, something each of her teammates would echo.
“Travis Manion says to honor the fallen by challenging the living,” Ritter said. “The challenge is not just to do the rebuilding in the places we go, but we’re also rebuilding our lives.”
Erica Johnson said her husband was all about service … and rebuilding lives. In fact, when Capt. Ricky Johnson died in April 2003, he was just 17 months shy of retirement and was preparing for his final deployment. He had planned to learn real estate when he was out of the service with an eye toward helping the homeless have simple, decent places to live.
“I love the motto,” Johnson said of the “If not me, then who …” statement. “I love being able to give back to the community because it was something that my husband definitely represented.”
She was among a few who brought teenage children — or slightly older — along for the week of service. She said that her children meshed with the other Gold Star families as she knew they would.
“This was very family oriented,” she said. “We did not know each other, and it has been great working together. This is Expedition No. 6 for me. Every time I meet new families, and it’s a new experience. We love to be able to honor our soldiers, our heroes by serving other people in the community.”
Jenna Henderson, who grew up on nearby Hatteras Island, also came with her daughter, Kaylee, a 20-year-old college student studying archaeology at Mississippi State University. Henderson said it is important that they keep up the legacy of service in which her husband, Army Sgt. 1st Class Christopher Henderson, so strongly stressed and demonstrated before he was killed in 2007 while serving in Afghanistan.
“This was an opportunity for us to come together and honor her dad but also to help others and give back,” she said. “One of the reasons he was in the military was, he said, that he wanted other people’s kids to have the same kind of life our daughter has. That was one of the reasons why he was deployed. He didn’t mind being there. He knew the risks. Unfortunately, some of the risks came true. But he always said he wanted Kayley to understand how important it is to help others not just here but around the world.
“This is one of the reasons why we’re involved with Travis Manion,” she added. “It’s a way of keeping his legacy alive, as well as teaching her that it’s not about yourself — it’s about the world around you, and the world around you will help take care of yourself.”
While Henderson is a native of the area, the heat and humidity was something else for Pam DeGroot, who came to New Bern with her daughter, Ellie. DeGroot’s son, Lance Cpl. Brent Vroman was killed in action while serving in Iraq on Dec. 13, 2004. After serving all week in North Carolina, they were able to laugh off the complaints of their friends back home whining about the “hot” 85-degree weather there. Besides, no amount of heat and humidity would keep them from paying tribute.
“I think it’s a wonderful opportunity for us to honor our son by doing something outside of ourselves by giving to someone else and to help someone else,” DeGroot said. “My daughter and I could honor my son, her brother, by doing service for others.”
“It seemed to fit us pretty nicely,” daughter Ellie DeGroot said of the Travis Manion Foundation. “It helps Gold Star families honor their heroes in unique ways, such as Expeditions like this that I’m here doing with The Fuller Center. It’s been really fun, a lot of hard work. And we’ve met some super people!”
Perhaps no one was more impressed with the work of these volunteers than was John Carroll, who has been assisting The Fuller Center Disaster ReBuilders’ regional leaders Aaron and Toni Ratliff with their work in the New Bern area since February. He said the addition of these volunteer quarters will provided a much-needed supplement to the volunteer quarters already provided by Cornerstone Church (affectionately known around New Bern as “cStone”), which will continue to provide meals for volunteers at both locations.
“This week has been spectacular,” Carroll said, adding that volunteers from Dauphin County Technical School (of Harrisburg, Pa.) were among those who joined the Travis Manion volunteers on site this week. “We’ve had up to 26 volunteers in this one building. That’s a lot of people, but it’s a big building. There’s a lot of sheetrock, a lot of taping, a lot of priming, a lot of painting, and they have come so far. I’m going to get in big trouble for saying this, but this is probably the best group we’ve ever had here. They work, they work, they work. And when they finish something, they come looking for you to ask, ‘What can I do next?’ That’s the best.”
Gallery: Travis Manion Volunteers in New Bern
Travis Manion Foundation video: “What is Character?”