The Officer — March/April 2014
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Hope From Tragedy
Janine Boldrin

Families of the Fallen Continue Their Loved Ones’ Legacy of Service

Before the Iraq war, Tom McDonough and Ken Drevnick hadn’t seen each other in years. A chance meeting—Mr. McDonough had car trouble, and Mr. Drevnick, a Minnesota State Patrol officer, stopped to help him—put the two high school classmates back in contact. The men didn’t stay in touch, but they did have something in common: sons who joined the military.

In December 2006, Sergeant Bryan McDonough, 22, who was serving with the Minnesota National Guard in Iraq, died from injuries from an improvised explosive device (IED) that detonated near his Humvee. In July 2009, Specialist Daniel Drevnick, also 22 and serving with the Minnesota National Guard in Iraq, was killed in a rocket attack. News of SPC Drevnick’s death prompted Mr. McDonough to reconnect with his old classmate.

SGT McDonough and SPC Drevnick are two of more than 1,200 Reserve Component service members who have given their lives during the Global War on Terrorism. While the human toll of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan has fallen of the front pages of newspapers, families of the fallen have not forgotten the ultimate sacrifice of their loved ones and others like them.

Facing a future forever changed by war, some families of the fallen, such as the McDonoughs and Drevnicks, have channeled their grief into starting nonprofits serving the military and their families. Their organizations have not only helped them heal but also play a vital role in closing gaps in local services for veterans returning from more than a decade at war. The result has been a less-discussed legacy of the wars—one of hope and service born from unimaginable loss.

“We didn’t want one fateful day in Iraq to be his final memory,” said Mr. Drevnick, who established a scholarship fund in his son’s name. The McDonough family started a foundation to support veteran-friendly causes in honor of their son.

“Every family copes differently,” Mr. Drevnick said. “Some want to be leaf alone, and some want to be involved in everything they can find.”

Building a New Future

More than 13,000 parents have lost a child serving in the military in Iraq or Afghanistan during the Global War on Terrorism. Many, like the Drevnicks and McDonoughs, take immense pride in their child’s selfless service.

“He died honorably,” said Mr. McDonough, who established the Bryan McDonough Military Heroes Foundation in 2007. “I guess that is one of the things that we find comforting.

I tell people he died doing something he believed in.” Initially, the family had hoped to help individual military families but found the task difficult. “It seems like those who really need help are not the ones that will ask for it,” Mr. McDonough said.

The decision was made to cast a wider net—raising money for half the cost of constructing the $5.2 million Fisher House at the Minneapolis VA Medical Center. So far, Mr. McDonough’s foundation has raised more than $300,000.

The 62 Fisher Houses located across the United States and Germany have provided housing for more than 180,000 families of military members and veterans receiving care at major medical and VA medical centers.

Even with the war winding down, the need for services such as those of the Fisher House will most likely continue because of the longevity of the wounds and injuries many veterans face.

“My fear is that people will forget [the fallen],” said Mr. McDonough. “By keeping the foundation going, even if it never grows, it will show that people have not forgotten.”

Never Forgotten

On average, it takes five to seven years for families who have experienced the tragic death of a close loved one to readjust and begin to feel settled. The desire to help other service members and their families has become an integral part of the journey traveled by many fallen service members’ families. Te organizations are also a guarantee that their loved one’s legacy of service lives on.

But for each family that is coping and finding an outlet for their grief, many are still suffering in silence, paralyzed by their loss. The smaller nonprofits formed by RC families have not only helped families in their journey, but have also become the path for others who are struggling to find their way.

“A lot of people will ask if you heal,” Mr. Drevnick said. “You don’t heal. You find a new normal. In a sense, we’ve been able to find a new normal and a new focus.”

On the front page of the Bryan McDonough Military Heroes Foundation website is a link to the Daniel Drevnick Memorial Fund, where the reverse link can also be found. Like many other service members, SPC Drevnick was working on his education and career goals up until he was deployed.

“He was following in my footsteps and going to school to be a police officer,” said Mr. Drevnick. SPC Drevnick served with a military police unit and was looking forward to becoming a Minnesota state trooper. “It was his dream and direction.”

Now the elder Drevnick is working to help other service members who want to pursue an education in law enforcement by giving scholarships to Minnesota military members, their spouses, and their children. The fund has awarded 22 scholarships since its inception in 2012.

The majority of the fundraising is done through an annual fishing tournament, a hobby both father and son enjoyed. The last trip they took together was to the Florida Keys to do some sport fishing before the deployment, said Mr. Drevnick, his words trailing of at the memory. In 2014, Fishing for Our Heroes will be one of the largest fishing tournaments in Minnesota.

Close to half a million veterans and service members used the Post-9/11 GI Bill in 2012 to pay for schooling, but requirements for the funding are more complex for Reserve and National Guard service members. These smaller scholarships help to close education funding gaps.

“We want to help our men and women who come home and are struggling,” said Mr. Drevnick. “The money can help put gas in their car, get day care help or whatever they need to stay in school, since it goes right to the recipient.”

Gwen Dupont also is honoring a son’s memory by providing college scholarships. Her son, First Sergeant Kevin Dupont, was a quiet man who loved the military. He volunteered to go to Afghanistan even though he was six months shy of his 20-year retirement. In June 2009, 1SG Dupont died of injuries he sustained from an IED while deployed with the Massachusetts National Guard. His mother received notes and letters from many Soldiers telling her what her son meant to them. People also started sending the Dupont family money.

“I said, ‘We don’t need this money. This is Kevin’s money,’ ” Ms. Dupont said. “I knew we had to do something in memory of him.”

The family established the First Sergeant Kevin Dupont Memorial Scholarship Fund, a donor-advised, permanently endowed scholarship administered by a community foundation. The scholarships are given to local high school students, a decision that reffects 1SG Dupont’s desire to be an inspiration to those around him. Fellow Soldiers describe 1SG Dupont as a giving person who earned the respect and trust of Afghan elders, someone always looking to set an example for younger Soldiers.

“It’s something that keeps his name alive, and people won’t forget,” said Ms. Dupont. “He didn’t die in vain. This is his legacy.”

Honoring Their Actions

In December 2010, Carlene Barrett and her husband, Paul, helped to create the Operation Military Smiles program in cooperation with The Military Friends Foundation. The group runs yearly toy drives to host a giveaway before the holidays for local service members, veterans, and their families.

“My husband said that if we could put a smile on a kid’s face for one day, this is what we were going to do,” said Mrs. Barrett. They started the effort in honor of their son, Sergeant Robert Barrett, who was killed by an IED in April 2010 while he was serving with the Massachusetts National Guard in Afghanistan.

Forty-nine percent of the Selected Reserve force has Iraq and Afghanistan experience. Handing out toys to local children brought a little bit of normalcy to what was a very unfamiliar setting for many service members.

“When Robert was in Afghanistan,” Mrs. Barrett said, “I would ask him if he needed anything, and he would just say, ‘Ma, just send me toys for the kids.’ ”

Bonnie Carroll, founder of the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS), a national non profit that offers services to families of fallen service members, says honoring loved ones is “one of the most important things we do.

… Our loved ones lived a life that was spent in service.” Mrs. Carroll founded TAPS after her husband, Brigadier General Tom Carroll, who was serving in the National Guard in Alaska, died in an Army C-12 plane crash in 1992. For two years after his death, Mrs. Carroll researched the resources that existed for families of the fallen, carefully identifying gaps in service.

“I found an enormous need existed to help those grieving a loss,” said Mrs. Carroll, who recently retired as a major from the Air Force Reserve. The emotional support TAPS provides not only closes some of the gaps Mrs. Carroll identified, but it also serves as a way for families of the fallen to heal by helping others—something she was also doing by forming the organization.

“We have a lot of TAPS ambassadors who started out as grieving family members,” said Mrs. Carroll.

TAPS provides comfort and care to anyone mourning someone who died while serving in the Armed Forces, whether or not it was in combat and regardless of relationship. There are more than 3,700 widows and widowers from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, in addition to spouses who have lost their service members due to training tragedies, suicide, or accidents.

“TAPS is there to provide a new community to those that experience a loss,” said Mrs. Carroll, who knows firsthand what families face, as she is both a widow and a former commander who has helped her own National Guard unit through the deaths of several military members. “Grief is a wound to the soul. For our families, what is the most therapeutic is companionship with those who understand the loss and helping them walk the journey.”

The organization has hundreds of National Guard– and Reserve-connected volunteers who are matched with other survivors for peer counseling.

Mrs. Carroll thinks her husband would be proud of her for forming TAPS. “He took such good care of his troops,” she said. “This is the kind of thing he would have done.”

A Growing Need

While war causalities wind down, the number of people grieving the losses of all service member deaths—from combat, suicide, and other circumstances— is increasing. In 2012, TAPS helped 4,807 new survivors (13 per day) who were grieving the death of a service member or recent veteran. This was a 46 percent increase from 2011, when they assisted seven people per day on average. TAPS recently signed a memorandum of agreement with the National Guard to provide bereavement care for grieving military families.

—Janine Boldrin

Janine Boldrin is a Tennessee-based freelance journalist who is a regular contributor to The Officer. She is married to an Active-duty Army officer.