By Heather Huber/Fort Campbell CourierOctober 23, 2015
FORT CAMPBELL, KY. -- Military Survivor Appreciation Week, hosted each year by Army Community Services Survivor Outreach Services, wrapped up the week with a Boots on the Ground memorial outside of 101st Airborne Division headquarters on display Oct. 16-18, 2015.
"This is a boot display that honors all of our fallen service members that we've lost since Sept. 11, 2001," said Suzy Yates, SOS program manager. "This actually started with the Fisher House in Hawaii four years ago."
This is the second year Fort Campbell has hosted the display. Last year SOS collected boots to represent all of the Soldiers who died in combat since 9/11. This year names were collected of Soldiers who died while on active duty since Sept. 11, 2001.
"It is meant to support our service members who died in support of the Global War on Terror," Yates said. "That's any branch of service, any cause of death -- so it can be stateside or combat -- and we really want to raise awareness with this display about the amount of loss that we've sustained since the beginning of the Global War on Terror."
Fort Campbell is one of four installations that have similar displays. The boots were lined along the front lawn of McAuliffe Hall in a design reminiscent of Arlington National Cemetery in order of date of death. The names submitted after the display was finished were added to the last row in the order they were turned in. Yates said they will be moved to their proper locations in next year's display.
Sheila Patton's son Staff Sgt. James R. Patton was represented by one of the more than 7,000 boots displayed in the memorial.
"I'm a military spouse of 28 years, my husband served and retired out after 28 years, but my son Staff Sgt. James R. Patton wanted to follow in his daddy's footsteps and join the Army," Patton said.
James was assigned to Fort Benning, Georgia, the same installation that his father first served at, where he deployed six times without incident. It was during his seventh tour to Iraq that he was killed in a roadside attack.
"He died doing what he loved," Patton said. "I'm here as a Gold Star Mother and military spouse, supporting not only other Gold Star Families and Soldier, but I get therapy from doing all of this."
Patton has been volunteering with SOS since her son died. Last year she went around to organizations on post to request boots, as well as places in the surrounding communities.
"The community was just amazing giving us boots," Patton said. "Everyone out there is someone's son, daughter, husband, father, brother, sister. You have to embrace them all and celebrate how they lived their lives, not how they died."
James' boot is covered with 55 names in addition to his own. Patton said at the time the display opened last year, she was afraid there would not be enough boots to go around, so she covered her son's boot with the names of all the 3rd Battalion "Rangers in the Sky," who have died.
"I just thought Jimmy would want me to represent all of them and honor them all," Patton said.
While volunteering, Patton met Stephanie Dostie and her Family, who lost Sgt. 1st Class Shawn Dostie. Dostie had her husband's boot airbrushed infantry blue because he served with 2nd Battalion, 502nd Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division, when he was killed.
"He joined when he was 16 years old, and he served until he was 32," Dostie said.
The Dosties had been married 10 years and had two children when Shawn was killed just five days after Christmas in 2005.
"The only thing that's harder than losing Shawn is having him forgotten," Dostie said. "None of these Soldiers should be forgotten. He's more than a boot. He was a father. He was a husband. He was a best friend. And that's true for a lot of these boots out here. They're more than a boot. This was 32 years of life. This was someone's son. This was someone's brother. This was a Soldier who served next to his brothers. Just a like a lot of these boots out here. They deserve to be remembered. Not everybody steps up."
In addition to the memorial, Gold Star Families celebrated the lives of their Soldiers with a dance on Oct. 17, 2015, and a butterfly release after brunch on Oct. 18, 2015.
While handing out butterflies for the release, Yates told the Families about an Indian legend that states if you whisper your wish to the butterfly before releasing it, it will carry that wish with it into the sky.
Before releasing her butterfly, Aundrea Gatton whispered a message to her butterfly to be carried to her brother, Sgt. Ronald Joseph Forsyth II, 118th Engineer Equipment Support Platoon (Walton, Kentucky), Kentucky National Guard.
"If we whisper something to them, maybe they'll get our message that we do miss them and we love them," Gatton said. "This is for us the first time we've ever done anything like this. For my little boy (Jason, 5), this is something different and unique and he's really enjoying it because this is his uncle and his favorite person in the world to see. So for him, this is like I get to see my Uncle Ronnie and watch him fly."
Gatton said she felt the butterfly release was a unique way to remember her brother and all the fallen Soldiers because the alternative was to visit a gravesite and try to remember his life. For Jason, she felt it was better to get to see something living fly away and remember his uncle.
"Ronnie -- he was a great guy," Gatton said. "Anywhere you went, he would always make you happy. He'd make you smile. Help you in any way possible. Definitely one of a kind, very unique, and you'll definitely remember him by his smile. And his saying which was, 'He who has nothing to die for has nothing to live for.'"
She said that phrase had become forever associated with her brother in their hometown.
Jason came to the release dressed in his Captain America costume, something Gatton said he never takes off.
"His Uncle Ronnie was Superman, and then his Uncle Kirby is Batman, then on [Jason's] stepdad's side of the Family his uncle is Superman and his grandfather is Batman," Gatton explained. "But with Captain America being in the military as Sgt. Steve Rogers before he became Captain America, [Jason] just automatically assumed he's Captain America because he's in the military and he goes overseas and he fights the bad guys -- just like Captain America does. He always says 'I want to grow up and be just like Captain America, my daddy, and be in the military and fight the bad guys.'"
Sonja Johnson came out with her daughter and granddaughter to release butterflies in the memory of her husband, Command Sgt. Maj. Andre Johnson. He died on Oct. 25, 2013, after nearly 25 years of marriage.
"He's my hero, my husband, he was just a really good Soldier, a really good mentor. He was very well loved by the community, a lot of people knew him. He's just a wonderful man and a wonderful Soldier," Johnson said. "He is well missed and well loved."
Command Sgt. Maj. Johnson served two tours at Fort Campbell, and was in charge of operations at Fort Bliss, Texas, when he died.
Johnson released four butterflies with wishes and messages for her husband.
"I wished that my husband's memory and legacy stay alive for a lifetime," she said. "I see so much of my husband in my granddaughter. The only thing I can do is keep his memory alive by telling stories. She knows when she sees his picture."
Johnson said she already has several favorite stories to tell their 2-year-old granddaughter, but is sure as the girl ages, she will pick her own favorites.
"He was a wonderful man, very well known," she said. "I'm just so proud to be his wife -- he will always be my husband. I love him. I swell with pride every day. I miss the life."
Johnson said she is grateful for all the support she has received from SOS while readjusting to life without her husband.
"I fully support the Survivor Outreach Services, I try to be involved as much as I can," Johnson said. "I don't think I'd be as far as I am in my grief process if it hadn't been for Suzy and her team."
She said even though the reason everyone had gathered was sad, much of it was still a happy time.
"I'm looking around at all these little kids who will never know their parent," Johnson said. "It's heartbreaking, but it's happy."