Reflections on Memorial Day – 2018

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We have all heard and probably said, “Happy Memorial Day!” But should we be saying “Happy” Memorial Day? Is it really a “happy” day? Last night, I was told to have a “wonderful and happy holiday.”

11082620_734425066656212_8123128271800835040_nI have rough days where this really bothers me. When I grit my teeth and want to scream. But most of the time, when someone says, “Happy Memorial Day” to me, I smile even though my heart my breaking. I am thankful to all of those who gave all, who gave their very lives so that the American public can have a “happy” Memorial Day. So that they can go to barbecues, head down the shore, take a road trip, or whatever else makes them happy, without thinking about what Memorial Day truly means.

I am glad that I live in a country protected by these brave souls so that John Q Public can continue to live in ignorance.

I am the proud Gold Star Mother of Sgt Derek McConnell. A Gold Star Mother is defined as a mother of a son or daughter who died in active duty to the United States military.

My children are Gold Star Siblings. My sister and brother-in-law are a Gold Star Aunt and Uncle. My nephews are Gold Star Cousins. My father is a Gold Star Grandfather.Derek11

That means that this weekend, while so many are headed down the shore, planning barbecues, or enjoying a three day weekend, we are missing someone very important to us.

That means that we know first hand the real cost of war. Not in dollars and cents, but in tears and heartbreak.

That means that we will never again hear Derek’s infectious laugh or bust our sides laughing at his obnoxious and inappropriate antics.

That means that we still have a hole in our hearts and in our families.

That means that we might cry when we think of him, but that is okay.

That means that at times our emotions are raw.

That means that we truly loved and lost a part of ourselves.Derek1

That means that the little boy’s hand I held, boo boos I kissed, and nightmares I chased away will never grow old, have children, or live the life he dreamed,

That means that we have learned that we are stronger than we ever thought. We’ve lived through tragedy and heartbreak so that the American way of life can live on.

That means that when someone wishes me a Happy Memorial Day, I choke back the tears as I think about the true meaning of this day.

Since WWII, my family has lost four brave men while in military service to this country. In 1942, my paternal grandfather lost two of his brothers.  Albert Fuller was a Merchant Marine who died on a torpedoed tanker, and Frank Fuller was a Lt. Commander in the US Navy who also perished on a tanker in the South Pacific.  My paternal grandmother lost her brother, John Keane, in 1945 in Germany.  All three of those men were from New Jersey, with one, John Keane, having emigrated here from Scotland when he was a child and became a US citizen.

Only seven short years ago, I celebrated Memorial Day with two sons in the Armed Forces. Michael was finishing his tour of duty in Norfolk, Virginia, but Derek had deployed to Afghanistan in March 2011 with the 10thMountain Division out of Fort Drum, New York where Derek exemplified the 10thMountain’s Motto: “Climb to Glory”.

On July 23, 2011, Derek was injured while attempting to secure a landing zone for a medevac helicopter for an injured lieutenant, Derek encountered not one, but two IEDs.  The first one knocked him down, but he sustained no further injury.  When given the opportunity to stand down, he laughed and carried on.  Two steps later, he wasn’t so lucky.

Derek23Derek suffered amputations to both legs, the left leg from the hip and the right leg high above the knee.  He also had a degloving injury to his right arm, leaving the hand not able to function, several fractures, and blast wounds, and he was riddled with infections due to the dirty soil entering his blood stream.  We almost lost him several times to sepsis and organ failure.

He kept his sense of humor through it all and made all of us laugh. When I told him he was a hot mess, his response to me was, “Well, Mom, at least I’m hot.”  His sense of humor is something none of us will forget.

Derek fought hard, and never gave up.   He learned to walk again on high tech prosthetics, learned to be independent, and proposed to the girl of his dreams, his high school sweetheart.  They were to be married in January 2014.  Derek aspired to be a writer, and he started his own novel.  He was completing the med board process so that he could be medically retired from the Army, and he was looking forward to coming home in the summer of 2013, and to picking up his service dog, a German Sheppard with an angel’s name, Gabriel.  My sister and brother-in-law, Yvette and Brian Maglio, renovated their home so that Derek would be able to move home.  We were all ready and excited about the future.  Derek knew his limitations, but he was ready to meet them head on.

His dreams and goals were not to be realized.  On March 18, 2013, almost two years to the date he deployed to Afghanistan, he climbed to eternal glory.  Sgt Derek McConnell, 23 years old like so many other Veterans; made the ultimate sacrifice and wrote a blank check payable to The United States of America, for an unknown amount, but “up to, and including, his life…”

But Derek is only one of our brave men and women who answered the call to serve our country.  He is but one.  We are but one Gold Star Family honoring and remembering our military heroes on this Memorial Day.

Please bear with me while I tell you about a few more of those brave men from New Jersey, many of whom are buried only stones away from my son at Holy Cross Cemetery in North Arlington.

ZilLt. Dennis W. Zilinski, age 23 from Howell, and SSgt. Edward Karolasz, age 25, from Kearny, were killed near Baiji, north of Baghdad by a roadside bomb
on November 19, 2005. “Dennis stood behind the nation’s mission 100%, ready to serve and protect the freedoms so many citizens cherish,” his parents, Marion and Dennis said.

Screen Shot 2017-05-26 at 3.43.47 PMOn June 5, 2004, we lost two members of the Army National Guard out of Morristown when their vehicle hit an IED in Baghdad. Spc. Ryan Doltz, 25, from Mine Hill and Army Sgt. Humberto F. Timoteo, of Newark, 25. Two other members of the same unit, Sgt. Frank Carvill, 51, of Carlstadt, and Spc. Christopher Duffy, 26, of Brick, were killed days earlier in an ambush.

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Army Staff Sgt. Timothy R. McGill, 30, of Ramsey, N.J., was assigned to 2nd Battalion, 19th Special Forces Group, Middletown, R.I. and died Sept. 21, 2013

 

 

Today, we pause to honor all of those lost in military conflict since the start of our great nation, which is more than 1.3 million.  Their sacrifice and the sacrifice of their families can never be forgotten.

I want everyone to have fun this weekend.  Have a BBQ.  Go down the shore.  Go for a swim.  But please also pause to remember WHY we have this three day weekend.  WHY we enjoy the freedoms we have.  WHY when the National Anthem plays or the flag flies high, we should stand at attention. Why when taps plays, a Gold Star family silently cries.

I challenge every person here to share the true meaning of Memorial Day with five people. Tell the story of ONE person who gave all.  I told you about several here today. Choose one of them, or find someone new. Just please talk about at least one member of our military who gave all so that we may be free.

You are never truly gone until no one remembers you. Talk about those we lost. Share their stories. Keep their sacrifice and memories alive.

In closing, Memorial Day is about so much more than BBQs, the beach, and a long weekend. Memorial Day is a day of reflection and remembrance. It is a day to remember all of our Fallen Heroes from all of the wars. It is a day to think about the families that will forever grieve for their lost loved one. It is a day to be thankful to those who have served and made the ultimate sacrifice. They fought and died to win the freedom and democracy that we Americans cherish so dearly.  All gave some, but some gave all.

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Gold Star ID Ceremony

One of my favorite topics of conversation is my children. Today, I had the honor of speaking at a ceremony honoring Gold Star families where New Jersey’s new Gold Star ID Program was kicked off in Morris County by the Clerk, Ann Grossi, and several of us received our new IDs. This is the speech that I gave (give or take a little because when I am at the podium, most things come from my head, not the paper).

My name is Siobhan Fuller-McConnell, and I am a Gold Star Mother.

My son, Sgt Derek McConnell, of the United States Army, was born on October 8, 1989. He came into this world fighting. He was born at only 3 lbs, with a birth defect known as gastroschisis, and he had several surgeries in the first few years of his life.  But it never slowed him down.

In January 2010, at the age of 20, he enlisted in the US Army and shipped out to Fort Benning for basic training. One year later, in March 2011, he left with the 10thMountain Division, 287-B Company, from Fort Drum, NY to the desert of Afghanistan. The 10thMountain’s Motto is Climb to Glory, something Derek aspired to every day.

On July 23, 2011, I received a phone call from Fort Drum advising me that Derek had been injured while on patrol.  While attempting to secure a landing zone for a medevac helicopter for an injured lieutenant, Derek encountered not one, but two IEDs.  The first one knocked him down, but he sustained no further injury.  When given the opportunity to stand down, he laughed and carried on.  Two steps later, he wasn’t so lucky.

Derek suffered amputations to both legs, the left leg from the hip and the right leg high above the knee.  He also had a degloving injury to his right arm, leaving the hand not able to function, several fractures, and blast wounds, and he was riddled with infections due to the dirty soil entering his blood stream.  We almost lost him several times to sepsis and organ failure.  He was the soldier that no one expected to survive. When we arrived at National Naval Medical Center, the future Walter Reed National Military Medical Center on July 29, 2011, they tried to prepare us to lose him. At one point, one of his doctors sat me down and said point blank – I don’t think I can save him. For four months, his doctor talked to us in analogies of Derek being “in the woods.” He was deep in the woods. He was closer to the edge, but not yet out. In November 2011, Dr. Perdue finally walked into his hospital room and announced that the woods were in the rear view mirror. I swear they heard us cheering down stairs in the lobby. Derek beat the odds.

Derek spent 59 days in the ICU and 228 days (seven full months) as an inpatient at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland. He had 45 surgeries and procedures, and he was seen by 34 different medical teams and services.  He fought through it all.

Derek fought long and hard to regain his health, strength and stamina, but he never lost his sense of humor.  We spent many days sitting in his hospital room, when he was too sick to get out of bed, just laughing at his antics.  We were the place nurses and doctors came to hang out, laugh, and get their daily dose of “Derekisms”.

In high school Derek was the student who showed up to class with a smile and a whole lot of charm.  That’s it.  No homework.  No notebook.  If it was the teacher’s lucky day, he would have a pen with him. Otherwise, he had nothing but his winning personality.  He charmed his teachers into passing him.  He stood up for the little guy.  He fought against injustice.  He was as fierce in battle as he was gentle in friendship and a great ally.  He so loved his family that he had a tattoo of a four-leaf clover on his arm with the name of each of his four siblings on the four leaves.  His favorite sayings were “No Luck, Only Sacrifice,” and “Go Big, or Go Home.”  He had “No Luck, Only Sacrifice”tattooed on his arm, and many of us have gotten a similar tattoo in his honor.  He meant that you do not get anywhere in life by relying on luck; you work hard and sacrifice for what is important.

He was also a hot mess.  When I told him that, his response to me was, “Well, Mom, at least I’m hot.”  He drove his poor fiancée crazy – while he was still in the hospital, he woke Krystina from a nap by throwing things at her, just to tell her he loved her.  He could be heard singing “Baby come back! You can blame it all on me!” at the top of his lungs when he aggravated Krystina and she walked out of the room.

He called me “Silly, Si O Bon,” and whenever he ticked me off, which was often, he responded “But, Mommy!  I’m a cripple!” or something similar.  He loved to aggravate me. What I wouldn’t give for just one more battle with him, or one more “yuck” when I kissed him good-night.

Derek fought hard, and never gave up. He learned to walk again on high tech prosthetics, learned to be independent, and proposed to the girl of his dreams, his high school sweetheart on Christmas Eve 2011.  They were to be married in January 2014 after winning a dream wedding contest sponsored by Naninas in the Park, Venus Jewelers, and others.  He promised to dance with me at his wedding. He still owes me that dance, and I will collect on it someday.

Derek aspired to be a writer, and he started his own novel.  He was completing the med board process so that he could be medically retired from the Army, and he was looking forward to coming home in the summer of 2013, and to picking up his service dog, a German Shepherd with an angel’s name, Gabriel. My sister and brother-in-law, Yvette and Brian Maglio renovated their home so that Derek would have a wheelchair accessible place to call home.  We were all ready and excited about the future.  Derek knew his limitations, but he was ready to meet them head on.

His dreams and goals were not to be realized.  On March 18, 2013, almost two years to the date he deployed to Afghanistan, he climbed to eternal glory.  Sgt Derek McConnell, 23 years old like so many other Veterans; made the ultimate sacrifice and wrote a blank check payable to The United States of America, for an unknown amount, but “up to, and including, his life…”

But Derek is only one of our brave men and women who answered the call to serve our country.  He is but one.  I am but one Gold Star Mother. We all have special stories to share.

Thank you to Ann Grossi and her staff for this ceremony today. Thank you to all of our men and women who have served and continue to serve, for they have made today possible. Finally, most especially, thank you to those who gave all and the families who love and lost them.

All Paws On Deck

A few years ago I wrote a blog post for an online magazine that is no more.  Here is that original article I wrote about the Walter Reed Facility Dogs.  It should be updated, because so much more has happened and we have so many new dogs to love, but this is the original:

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On August 8, 2011, when my son, Derek, was in the SICU at National Naval Medical Center (now Walter Reed National Military Medical Center)(also known as Walter Reed Bethesda), which is located in Bethesda, Maryland, I was given news that shook me to the core. Derek was septic. His blood pressure was beyond dangerously low. The doctors rushed him off to the Operating Room to try to save him. It did not look good.

In a daze, Derek’s fiancée, Krystina, and I made our way down to Dunkin Donuts for a much needed cup of coffee. On the way back, I noticed two dogs walking through the lobby of Building Ten. I commented to Krystina that they were so cute.

The Golden Retriever’s ears perked up, and she “dragged” her handler over to us. It was as if she knew I needed her. She herded me into the chairs until I sat and began to pet her. Her buddy sat beside her, getting pets from Krystina. For the next few minutes, we were lost in the comfort of the beautiful creatures before us.

Such is the job of Walter Reed Bethesda’s facility therapy pups. They not only give comfort to the patients they visit daily, they help the families deal with hospital life and loss, and help reduce stress for the staff. Eyes light up, treats come out, and smiles abound when the dogs walk onto the floor. They truly are the facilities’ most cherished, if not most important visitors.

At Walter Reed Bethesda, there are three full-time therapy pups (Laura Lee, Sgt Archie, and Bobbie), and one part-time (Susie). All were donated to the hospital by Southeastern Guide Dogs, which is based in Florida. Paws For Patriots is a program started in 2006 by Southeastern, and its goal is to work with service members recovering from injuries. The dog program in Bethesda was started by Dr. David Bitonti in 2007.

The puppies, who are bred by Southeastern, spend about fourteen months with a volunteer puppy raiser who teaches basic obedience and socialization. Upon their return to Southeastern, formal training, which lasts four to six months, teaches the pups what they need to know for their new career. The choice of career is based on individual temperament, and if the original choice does not work out, for whatever reason, the dogs are given a career change. Southeastern has placed dogs with the blind, veterans, firefighters and policemen, as well as with hospitals for therapy dogs.

Laura Lee, who lives with Patty Barry, a civilian employee at Walter Reed Bethesda, is a Golden Retriever. She came to Bethesda in 2008. As the sole therapy dog, she worked her paws to the bone. On June 4, 2010, her workload was eased by the addition of Cpl Archie, and in September 2010, Bobbie joined the ranks.

Archie was adopted by Amy O’Connor as a fifteen month old, German Sheppard puppy. “A German Sheppard was not what I had first expected to receive, but he quickly became a part of our family.” Although Amy now works as a Healthcare Resolutions Specialist at the facility, she is a social worker by training. Walking through the ICU, she saw the effect that Laura Lee had on patients and family members, as well as the staff. “She had a very calming influence,” she said. In the past, after 9/11, she saw how therapy dogs helped ease the family members who were grieving, so she willingly welcomed Archie into her family, and she relishes the work she does with him. In describing him she said he is a typical Marine, “He is focused and hard working. You will often see him scanning the perimeter to protect the other dogs, as well as the patients. He is always on alert.”

When Archie joined the facility, he was nicknamed “Corporal” Archie, but was promoted to “Sergeant” in March 2011. A full promotion ceremony honoring the newest Sergeant was performed by the Marines.

The therapy dogs at Walter Reed Bethesda are given ranks and wear proper uniform coats, made with love by Lily Burch, a nurse at the hospital. Laura Lee is a Rear Admiral (two star) and has her very own parking permit. She really is top dog. Archie is a Sergeant in the Marine Corps, and he is expected to change uniforms when the Marines do. He must wear his woodlands coat in the winter, and Amy makes sure his uniforms are in proper order. Bobbie is a Lieutenant Commander in the United States Navy Nurse Corps and proudly wears her uniform. “They know when the coat goes on, they are working,” said Bobbie’s proud Mom, Lisa Bitonti, a volunteer at the facility. Lisa is often seen on Cookie Fridays, handing out cookies on the floor, but she is best known for her role with Bobbie. “We love visiting the patients, family and staff,” she said. She makes sure Bobbie keeps all her appointments, including special occasions.

The fourth working dog is a sweet, Golden-Lab mix, Susie, who mostly works in the Pentagon with a Sergeant Major in the Army. She recently joined the staff after the Sergeant Major’s prior therapy dog, Naoma, suddenly became ill and passed away around Thanksgiving 2011. Her death was felt throughout the hospital, and a ceremony in her honor was held in the Garden of Peace (located by the Chapel at Walter Reed Bethesda), where a stone in her memory sits.

Laura, Archie and Bobbie have been part of all of Derek’s milestones, as well as the milestones of many of the wounded warriors. They were there when Derek first stood on his new prosthetics, took his first steps, was promoted to Specialist, received his Purple Heart, and finally left the hospital after a seven month stay. “It wouldn’t be as special without them,” he said at his promotion ceremony. During one visit with Archie and Amy, Amy rushed out of the room to get to the MATC, because a young man needed Archie by his side when he tried out his new legs. “He’s loved,” she said with a smile.

The three regulars have different personalities and temperaments, so there is a pup for everyone.

LauraLaura is alpha and an attention hog. If there is love to be given, she wants it. She is also extremely empathetic, and senses when she is needed. Her wise eyes and constant smile lull everyone into a sense of calm. She works a lot in Breast Care with the women receiving chemotherapy for breast cancer. In a crowd of people, she can pick out the one person who needs her the most. She loves to balance her treats on her nose and then flip them into her mouth to the delight of everyone.

Archie13Archie is, as Amy said, a typical Marine. He is always alert and on guard. He loves children and lets them crawl all over him. “I like him, even if he is a Marine,” commented Derek, an Army Specialist. Archie’s most famous trick is his “high ten” where he jumps up and gives double high paws. “The thing I love the most about Archie is that he makes people smile, he makes me smile,” commented Amy.  “He is real to his core. You know when he is happy, when he is not, when he wants to be with you, and when he needs to take a nap.”

11018895_1057439567619423_5282421495161973558_nBobbie is just a sweetie. She snuggles on the bed, when invited, and gives her rump for a good scratching. She does have a weakness, though, and, shhhh, don’t tell anyone I revealed this: Her only weakness is treats. She loves her food, her favorite of which is celery and other veggies, but she does not discriminate, and she will sit up and take notice whenever there is food around. She works a lot on the TBI/psychiatric ward. Lisa stated, “I was told that she has a way of getting people to open up and talk.” Lisa adds, “It is an honor being on the other end of Bobbie’s leash. She provides the comfort, and I’m so proud being her partner.”

Ask anyone at Walter Reed Bethesda about them, and there are not many who have not met one, or all, of these special additions to the staff. “I love when they come in, and when Archie settles on my bed,” said one patient, who does not wish his name to be used. “I really miss my dog at home, and Archie helps me with that.”

The program at Walter Reed Bethesda is such a success that it is spreading to Quantico. Laura, Archie and Bobbie were invited to Quantico in December 2011 to make a presentation in the clinic. “They have such a great, therapeutic influence,” Amy said.

Lisa also says she is honored “to meet the wonderful patients and their families. They allow us into their lives, and I know my life is more meaningful because of them.”

When at Walter Reed Bethesda, to arrange a visit with one of the pups, contact Patricia Barry (patricia.barry@med.navy.mil / 301-295-7895) or Amy O’Connor (Amy.R.O’Connor@health.mil / 301-319-4447). You will be glad you did.

 

More Than Just a Dog

LauraMy heart is breaking over the sudden passing of the matriarch of the Walter Reed Facility Dog Program, VADM Laura Lee. 
This comes on the heels of the diagnoses of inoperable cancer in GySgt Archie, who retired from the program last year.Archie13
I cannot tell Derek‘s story without mentioning the three original facility dogs – Laura Lee, Bobbie, and Archie.
On August 8, 2011, Derek went septic. He had been in the ICU at Walter Reed in Bethesda, Maryland since July 29, 2011. Krystina and I were in shock as we walked through the lobby of Building 10. I looked over and saw two dogs – Laura and Bobbie. Laura must have sensed that I needed her, because she pulled her handler over and herded me into the seats. She leaned against me while I stroked her beautiful, golden fur.
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A few days later, Archie trotted into the ICU for a meeting with us, because his Mom, Amy, needed to speak with me.
After that, we had visits from Laura, Bobbie, and Archie every couple of days. They gave comfort and love every time they visited.
They were there for most of Derek’s milestones.
The first time he stood on his new prosthetics.Archie21
The first time he walked.
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 The day he was awarded his purple heart.
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 The day he was promoted.

The day he finally wheeled out of the hospital as an outpatient.

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The day he received his van from Help Our Military Heroes.
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And when we lost Derek, they attended his memorial service.
Laura and Archie are more than “just a dog.” They have been part of a horrible, wonderful, traumatic, inspiring chapter in our lives.
Laura Christmas 2017
Archie01Laura was such a sweet, quiet soul who touched and enriched so many lives. Archie’s stoic strength helped so many through their own trials and tribulations.
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Laura passed quietly in her sleep, and I know that Derek was waiting for her at the Rainbow Bridge.
Archie, I wish you happiness and an easy transition to the Rainbow Bridge, where I know Derek McConnell will be waiting with open arms and lots of bacon.

5 Years Later

1982346_673459969361866_1032275956_nFive years ago, March 18, 2013, I got up early on a Monday morning and headed into NYC for a job interview. At that time I did not yet know that not only would I be offered the job, but that I would not be able to accept the offer.

Derek2I got a message in the late morning from a man who has treated me like a little sister since the day he met me, Anson. He said, “Go home and stay there. For once in your life, do what you are told without asking why.”

I was at home when I got the message, so I said, “I’m home, so now I’m asking why.  What’s going on?”

He wouldn’t tell me. I told him that I had to leave to take the puppies to the vet. It was their first vet appointment. I told him that I would be home by 4:30 p.m.

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While I was posting about the vet, friends at Walter Reed, who already knew what happened, were watching my Facebook and wondering when I would be notified.

When I got back from the vet, I called Anson. He told me to just stay home. He also asked me if I had spoken to Krystina. I told him that I had not, but that I had texted both Derek and Krystina, and neither one of them answered.  That was odd to me, and I had no idea why. He told me to keep calling Krystina. I tried. She didn’t answer.

At around 5 p.m., Tom called me. He was a friend of Derek’s and a cop in North Caldwell. He asked me if Derek was okay. I told him that he was, as far as I knew. He told me that the vice principal of the Jr High texted the Chief in North Caldwell that she was sorry to hear about Derek. That confused me. Could she mean the accident from July 23, 2011? Seemed a little out there.11080911_10206322913621614_7858929696618954598_n

So I tried Krystina, again. No answer.

I called Derek. Straight to voicemail.

I texted both of them. No response.

But then at around 5:30 p.m. Krystina called me and blew my world apart.

1908241_433311883438857_1404279879_nAt 7:30 that morning, she had tried to wake Derek for PT, and he was gone. The Army had their procedures for notifying the next of kin, so she was not allowed to call me. They allowed her to call her mother, who picked up her son from the Jr High (hence how the VP knew) and headed down to Bethesda, MD. Krystina finally got tired of waiting for the Army to notify me and called me herself.

I sat on the top of the stairs and screamed.

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I called my sister, Yvette, and she got her stuff together and came to pick me up so that we could drive to Bethesda.

I then called Anson, who had been at Walter Reed and found out, but could not tell me himself or he would have gotten in trouble. He told me to stay home because the notification officer was on his way. I told him he could meet me on the Turnpike and kiss my ass because I was headed to Bethesda.

Screen Shot 2018-03-18 at 11.53.54 AMThus started the worst journey of my life. Dealing with grief, the Army, planning a funeral, and remembering my toothless turd, it was a roller coaster few weeks.

1907470_10100194989513289_6033092849021981869_nIt was made worse by the fight it took to find out why. To find out what happened. To finally get the answers, but to not get satisfaction. I know what happened that day. It breaks my heart that no one will take responsibility for it.

It’s been a roller coaster five years. I cannot believe that it has been five years. It feels like only yesterday. It has not gotten easier. I’ve just learned to live with the pain.

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Last night, I signed on Facebook while at a St. Patrick’s Day party, and one of Derek’s nurses had posted that she hates March 18th, and she tagged one of Derek’s corpsmen. I knew what she was talking about. I broke down in tears.

 

I signed on Facebook this morning and my feed was full of tributes to Derek. Cue more tears.

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It fills me with love and comfort when people remember Derek and let me know how he touched their lives.

I’ll be out to dinner tonight with family and friends, raising a toast to Derek. Please join us at Houlihans on Route 46 in Parsippany, NJ at 6 if you are in the area, or raise a glass to him wherever you are. 29339524_10160112551410364_2555373578249830400_o

 

 

 

Oh, and please wear purple. That was Derek’s favorite color!

Thanks for the Memories – Summers at Seaside Heights

Seaside Heights Boardwalk lost a shining star on December 5, 2016, but Heaven gained a new angel. Ironically enough, my dear, beautiful, strong, cousin Robin had also been born on December 5th, some 50-ish years ago.

I remember when I was little, my sister Yvette and I would accompany our parents to Toms River to visit with Granny (Dad’s Mom). My great-aunt Rea (Dad’s Dad’s sister) and cousins, Robin and Doug, also lived in Toms River.

During the summer, no trip to Toms River was complete without a walk on the Seaside Heights Boardwalk, a tradition I continued until my Granny passed away in 2002, after which we skipped Toms River and went straight to the Boardwalk.

Robin and Doug were the owners of Playday Amusements, which in lay terms means that they owned the games located on Casino Pier.  They owned the games from May 1973 until September 2010, after which they owned and ran a store on the Boardwalk, Twisted Fish (https://www.facebook.com/Twisted-fish-180447492009689/).

My clearest memory is from when I was around 9 or 10 years old, maybe a little earlier, but definitely not later.

On that day, we met Robin and Doug for dinner at a restaurant that was on the second floor and overlooked the boardwalk and ocean. Do not ask me where that restaurant was exactly, or what its name was, or even what I ate, because those details are long lost in the dusty archives of my brain.

After dinner, Yvette and I were allowed to play their games until we won. If it took us one try or 100+ tries, we played until we won. That particular evening we each walked away with a pink elephant. It wasn’t soft and cuddly, but it was amazing.

At my Granny’s house, she had a small, soft, cuddly bear on her bed. She told me that she had won that at the Boardwalk. I wanted one. I do not remember what game I played, how old I was, or anything else except I won a brown bear that slept with me until I was in high school when he graduated to the top of my dresser. I still have him somewhere in the boxes that I packed when we moved from North Caldwell to Parsippany in 2009. One day maybe I’ll get to unpack.

As Yvette and I grew up and got our own licenses, we continued to drive to Toms River to visit with Granny and to walk on the Boardwalk. Even when we were going down with our friends, we stopped and saw Granny and took her to the Boardwalk with us. Her favorite game was the Frog Bog, one of Robin and Doug’s games.

No trip to Seaside Heights was complete without stopping to see Robin and Doug.

When my children were small, I brought them to visit Granny as often as I could, and each trip included a walk on the Boardwalk. Although it was never expected and always appreciated, Robin and Doug gave us books of ride tickets and a chance to play their games until each child won something. With five children, that is a big undertaking!

They were generous, loving, and appreciated on every level. As a single Mom with five children, I couldn’t afford to let the children play the games and ride all of the rides. My amazing cousins did that for me. I will never forget their generosity and love.

I remember one year when we stopped in their office upstairs (near the carousal), and Derek and Michael were eating ice cream cones. Their dog, whose name escapes me, relieved Derek of the burden of finishing his ice cream. Derek took it all in stride and said that the pup must just have been hungry.

I am a practicing family law attorney, and, on occasion, I get a case that brings me to Ocean County. About three years ago, sometime in late 2013 or early 2014, I had an appearance in Toms River and met Robin for lunch, after which she took me to the Boardwalk to see the devastation left by the fire than ravaged Seaside Park in September 2013. We walked the boards and she told me stories of the different vendors who after having rebuilt from Superstorm Sandy, lost everything in the fire. The fire stopped about 100 yards from Twisted Fish’s new location. The building that had housed Twisted Fish initially was destroyed by Sandy, so they moved further down the Boardwalk.

This past summer, August 2016, I rented a cottage in Seaside Park for a week. That week I was able to see Robin almost every day. In spite of her ongoing chemo treatments, she continued to work full-time, six days each week, taking off only one day, the day she had chemo. She was such a strong, loving woman. I am very glad that I was able to spend that time with her, although I do regret not getting down there in the Fall of 2016.

Robin was an amazing person. She was loving, kind, generous, and compassionate. Her absence will be greatly felt by all of us, but especially by her wonderful husband, Doug.

Robin, rest in the sweetest peace. You lived well and fought hard. You will be forever missed. No walk on the Boardwalk will ever be taken where you are not part of our thoughts and heart. I love you.

To Doug: You are family. We love you. We are only a phone call away if you need anything.

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In Honor and Memory of Santa

To the Beesley family on the passing of your amazing father, husband, grandfather, uncle, brother, friend:

I am sure that you will be inundated with hundreds of stories of the amazing man that many knew only as “Santa.” I had to add my story to the mix. Please bear with me as I try to pay tribute to someone who had a major impact on my life. I am not sure that I can add anything to your memories or ease your pain at all, but I would love to share my memories of Santa. He was the real deal. He was loving, kind, generous, and all around amazing.

The first time one of my children sat on Santa’s lap was in 1988. My son, Michael was only 2 months old when my sister took him to the West Belt Mall (aka Wayne Towne Center). While that polaroid picture has long since been lost (probably sticking in one of my hundreds of photo albums), the memories are clear.

Over the years, I brought my children to see different Santas, but there was only one true Santa, and we have faithfully seen him every year since 1998, with one exception.

In 1998, when Michael (age 10), Derek (age 9), Kellina (age 4), Ryan (age 4), and Sean (almost age 2), wanted to see Santa, my ex husband and I brought the children to Wayne Towne. My ex insisted that we take our own picture and not pay for one of the packages. I was beyond embarrassed, but there was nothing I could do. He refused to allow me to pay. I apologized to Santa, and he just smiled warmly at me and told me, “It’s okay.”

In December 1999, one month after my ex terminated his rights to visit with my five young children, I brought them to see Santa. When he looked up and saw me, he asked, “Hubby not with you this year?” I guess my ex really made more of an impression on Santa than I thought.

I whispered in his ear so the children couldn’t hear that their father had walked out and terminated his rights to see them. Michael was 11, Derek was 10, Kellina and Ryan were 5, and Sean would be 3 in January. Santa hugged me and refused to allow me to pay for the package. He not only gave it to me for free, he slipped money into my pocket and told me to get the children something from him for Christmas.

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We continued to see him in 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, and 2006, with him periodically giving me the package for free, and him giving the children free chocolate or an ornament.

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Not only did we get an annual photo with Santa, he was part of our family Christmas card each year.

In 2007, I held a photo of Michael because he was stationed in Norfolk, Virginia with the US Navy. Santa told me he was very proud of him.

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In 2008, Santa looked up at us when we were next in line, and I burst into tears. He came to me and hugged me. I told him that my mother had died that past June, Michael was away on his first deployment, and Derek was visiting his father out of state. My ex had not seen the children since 1999, but Derek wanted to connect with him, so he went to visit. My heart was broken with three missing that Christmas, and I was feeling lost. He asked me to meet him at K-Mart where he purchased presents for my three youngest children, who were then Kellina and Ryan, 14, and Sean who would be 12 in January.

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In 2009, Michael was once again at Naval Station Norfolk and could not be home before Christmas. I dragged my other four to see Santa along with Derek’s girlfriend. Derek had signed a contract with the US Army and was set to leave for basic training in January 2010. Santa had a long conversation with Derek about his time as an Army Ranger. That conversation meant so much to my Derek.

In 2010, Michael was on his second deployment, so I held his photo, but Derek got to come home for a weekend so we could go see Santa. Derek and Santa talked about Derek’s upcoming deployment to Afghanistan.

christmas-2010

In August 2011, I called Santa to tell him that Derek had been injured by a PPIED in the Zhari District of Afghanistan. At that point, we did not know if Derek would live or die. He told me he would try to come down and visit, and I was told later that he really tried, but just could not swing a trip to Maryland in the middle of a busy holiday season. It meant the world to me that he tried. Santa told me later that soon after receiving my phone call, he hung a large American flag in his area at Fairfield Home and Gardens in Derek’s honor that remained for the years to follow.

Derek lost both of his legs – christmas-2012his right leg high above the knee, and his left leg at the hip. He lost the use of his right hand, knocked out several teeth, had a traumatic brain injury (TBI), and experienced PTSD. But he was a fighter. He spent 7 months as an inpatient before he was released on March 1, 2012. Santa often checked in with me to follow Derek’s progress.

In December 2012, Derek was in a wheelchair, but he was able to walk short distances on his prosthetics. Because of his extensive injuries, he could not be in his wheelchair for long, so I stood in line and called the kids to join me when I got close to the end.

Derek rode his wheelchair to the exit, and then walked on his prosthetics to Santa, who met him half way, tears running down his face. The people who were waiting in the long line cheered after Santa told them Derek’s story.

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That was my favorite year with Santa. Those pictures are the ones I cherish the most. That was my last Christmas with Derek. Derek deployed to Heaven on March 18, 2013. Santa attended Derek’s wake and funeral, even though he himself was not well.

But that was not our last year with Santa.

In 2013, after losing Derek, we took a photo while Santa held on to Derek’s picture. He did the same in 2014 and 2015.

Santa even purchased a gold brick in the Ice Caverns in honor of Derek:brick-in-ice-caverns

Sadly, our annual Christmas photo with Santa will end as of 2015. We were going to see him next weekend, but it was not meant to be. Santa will be celebrating Christmas in Heaven this year.

When I signed on to Facebook on the afternoon of December 2, 2016, I found it flooded with photos of Santa and heartbroken messages from hundreds of people who loved him.

Even though his lines were always long, he took the time that was needed with each and every family. We knew that when we finally reached the front of the line, that he would not rush us. There will never be another Santa like him. Ever.

Just as Derek walked to Santa on his prosthetics in 2012, I picture Derek, waiting at the Gates of Heaven with open arms as Santa approached.

Two wonderful men.

Gone too soon.

Missed by so many.

I will miss the periodic texts that he sent to me simply saying, “God bless you. I love you.” I will forever regret not getting to see him over the last few months.

I will miss you, Santa. Mr. Beesley, you were one of a kind. Christmas will never be the same.

With all my love,

Siobhan

For information on how you can keep Santa Ray alive in the hearts of so many, please go to the link below:

Ray’s Christmas Miracles

https://www.gofundme.com/rays-christmas-miracles?ssid=829187962&pos=1