Gold Star Mothers remember loved ones
September 24, 2012
FORT SAM HOUSTON, Texas - Our nation has powerful words for when one loses a loved one, such as "widow" and "orphan." And although they are accurate, how do people refer to parents who go through the tumultuous emotions involved when they lose a child during war. For the Army, we recognize them as our Gold Star Mothers and Families.
Debbie Agnew and Reesa Doebbler are both Gold Star Mothers. Both said they remember the day when military men in uniform came to them to inform them that their sons had been killed in action in Afghanistan. Losing a child is a tragedy -- and it is the mission of the Army's Survivor Outreach Services to help the Gold Star Mothers and Families, such as Debbie, Reesa and many others, through the difficult process.
Both women said participating in the Alamo Area Gold Star Mothers Group also helped immeasurably. For Debbie Agnew, who is now a retired elementary school teacher, that day was Feb. 13, 2006. The time was 2 p.m.
"I was in the class room teaching third grade in Pleasanton, Texas, when the assistant principal came into my classroom and asked me to come to the office," said Agnew, adding that she initially thought it was to discuss an incident that happened in her class the week before.
"I thought I was going to meet with an irate parent," she said.
As the two women were walking down the hall, the assistant principal told Agnew that there were two men waiting to speak to her. Agnew stopped and said, "Its Clint isn't it? He is dead."
Clint was Staff Sgt. Clinton Newman, Agnew's 26-year-old son.
Newman, a member of the 321st Civil Affairs Brigade, Fort Sam Houston, Texas, died on Feb. 13, 2006, when a makeshift bomb detonated near his humvee near Deh Rawod, Afghanistan. He was nine months into a twelve-month tour.
"I didn't want Clint to join the Army," said Agnew. "I wanted him to go to college." But the 17-year-old knew there was no money for college so he decided to join for a few years to get the Post 9/11 GI-Bill.
"He joined the infantry and was sent to Germany," said Agnew. "He was only going to do a two-year enlistment and then go to college, but he fell in love with the Army."
After his enlistment was up, Newman returned home to San Antonio with a girlfriend. Not wanting to give up the military completely, he joined the 321st Civil Affairs Brigade.
"Clint met Julia while stationed in Germany," she said. "He would have liked to stay on active duty, but Julia wanted to go to college in San Antonio, so he came home," said Agnew. He didn't want to join the National Guard and couldn't find a reserve infantry unit in San Antonio so he switched to civil affairs."
"Clint liked being in civil affairs," said Agnew. "He got along well with the Afghan people. He was diplomatic enough to be around them and they loved him. Whenever their convoy would arrive in the village, the Afghans would ask, 'where is Sgt. Clint?'"
What Agnew remembers most about her son was his modesty and his compassion.
"He was named the Army Reserve Soldier of the Year in 2000," said Agnew. "But he didn't brag about it. His fellow Soldiers didn't even know until they looked through his records and asked him how a specialist had been awarded the meritorious service medal."
"He liked to be involved in helping people," said Agnew. "He was an easy kid. He was smart, made good grades, and always did his work. He really cared a lot, and always wanted to help people. I think that is one of the reasons he joined the Army."
For Reesa Doebbler it was 10 p.m. on Aug. 18, 2009, when she got the "knock" that changed her life.
"Instead of a knock on the door, I got a knock on the gate," said Doebbler. "We lived on five acres, and I saw a car sitting outside my front gate. My husband went out to see what they wanted, so he was told first.
"He came back to the house and told me to put my robe on. It was then I knew what had happened. My life changed forever that night."
Like Newmann, Staff Sgt. Clayton Bowen also joined the Army at 17. The 12-year Army veteran served as a drill sergeant and a shooting instructor before deploying to Afghanistan in February 2009 with the 1st Battalion, 501st Parachute Infantry Regiment, 4th Brigade Combat Team (Airborne), 25th Infantry Division. Bowen was riding in a humvee with four of his fellow "Spartan Brigade"
Soldiers, on his way to provide security for Afghanistan's presidential election when the vehicle hit an improvised-explosive device.
Doebbler had spoken to her son the night before as he prepared to go on a mission.
"Clay called me around midnight to tell me I wouldn't hear from him for a few days," she said. As she later learned, "the mission was to travel to the voting precincts so the Afghans could vote in the presidential election. His humvee hit an IED on the way."
Bowen joined the Army after high school, and after infantry basic and advanced individual training, he was sent to the 82nd Airborne Division.
"Clay wanted to 'be all you can be,'" said Doebbler. "He loved jumping out of perfectly good airplanes."
Doebbler knew her son would go far in the Army when, at his graduation from basic, he was the Soldier leading his platoon and carrying the guidon.
"His drill sergeants voted for him to lead the platoon, because he had earned it," she said.
Bowen was also a very good singer.
"He was asked to try out for the 82nd Airborne All-American Chorus," said Doebbler. "He passed the audition and I got to see him perform two or three times a year when the group would come to San Antonio."
Being a member of the chorus allowed Doebbler to preserve his voice.
"I have two of the groups CDs from when Clay was a member. He was the only bass in the group so you could always hear him."
After leaving the 82nd, Bowen became a drill sergeant and then a drill sergeant instructor.
"A book about how to survive basic combat training was written and Clay was selected as the role model -- he is on the front and back cover of that book."
In Dec. 2008 Bowen got orders for the 501st Infantry Regiment, based out of Fort Richardson, Alaska. The group deployed to Afghanistan three months later.
He was a mortar platoon sergeant," said Doebbler. "He and about 100 other Soldiers were sent to an outpost in the middle of Paktika Province."
"While in Afghanistan, Clay asked his parents to send him tools and other things to make their lives more bearable.
"I called the campaign 'Tools for Troops,'" said Doebbler. "He asked us to send him supplies to make his and his Soldiers lives more normal."
His parents put an article in their newspaper, Construction News, asking for donations. Donations, including cordless power tools, two big screen TVs as well as X-boxes, poured in.
"Clay loved the military," said Doebbler. He was proud of what he was doing. His goal was to be a command sergeant major; he was only a few promotions away."
Within in 24 hours of being notified of their son's death both women were visited by casualty assistance officers. The CAOs were Soldiers that would spend the next several weeks assisting the family with everything they needed, from helping them get ready for the funeral, to inventorying their personal possessions to making sure the survivors got all their benefits.
"First Sgt. Lionel Schneegans did a great job," said Agnew. "He was with us every day until the end of May." Shneegans was the rear-detachment first sergeant in Newman's unit.
Doebbler also was very happy with the quality of support she got from her CAO.
"My casualty officer, Capt. Kelly Wilhelm came here the next morning," she said. "He was absolutely wonderful, and took care of everything; he really helped out when I couldn't think." Wilhelm was assigned to the Brooke Army Medical Center at the time he served as a CAO.
Like many Mothers who lose a child, Agnew went through several stages of grief.
"In the beginning it was minute by minute," she said. "I sometimes felt like I was hanging by my finger nails."
Talking about her feelings and being around others who had lost a loved one helped Agnew work through the pain.
"About six weeks after Clint's death, I started attending a grief support group here in Plesanton," said Agnew. "They helped me get through the pain. If I wanted to talk, they let me talk. If I wanted to cry, they let me cry."
In late May 2006, Agnew and her husband were visiting Fort Bragg to attend a memorial service for Newman and other civil affairs Soldiers killed that year, a military chaplain told the family members that the reason the Army has so many memorial services for the fallen is because it helps the survivors deal with the reality of the situation and begin the healing process.
The organization that helped Agnew work through her grief the most was the Alamo Area Gold Star Mothers group.
"It is all women. We all lost a child in war," said Agnew. "We understand each other."
As part of the Gold Star Mothers group, Agnew also helps teach the Fort Sam Houston CNO/CAO class and served on the Fort Sam Houston Survivor Outreach Services.
Doebbler has also found healing through the Alamo Area Gold Star Mothers group.
"It has been wonderful," said Doebbler, who also serves as the secretary for the group. They are the only people I can be around who know exactly where I am coming from. It is good to have others around; we all help each other and have good times together too."
The best thing to help in the healing process is to find people you can talk to.
"I know what is like in the beginning," said Doebbler. "At first you get bombarded, you can't keep things straight, you are afraid to go out because you can see something that will break you down. I started going to TAPS at 6 months and also started seeing a grief counselor. The earlier you get assistance, the better you heal. It is difficult to convince a mother of this, but they will show up and be glad they did."
Fort Sam Houston will honor Gold Star Mothers and Families Sept. 29 and will conduct a ribbon-cutting ceremony for the new Survivor Outreach Center.