By Patrick BuffettMay 31, 2018
FORT LEE, Va. - "Sometimes, when we remember, it may bring tears. (At other times,) it may bring laughter. But we are always thankful for the memories because they keep the spirit of our loved ones alive."
This passage from Garrison Chaplain Col. Terry Romine's opening prayer encapsulated the significance of Fort Lee's eighth annual Survivor Outreach Services Butterfly Release May 24 at the Memory Garden near the Army Community Service facility on Mahone Avenue.
More than 20 Gold Star Spouses and Families were joined by a sizeable crowd of community supporters and installation leaders at the event. The garden's meticulously manicured grass areas and flower beds were rimmed with knee-high banners depicting images of the fallen.
Brig. Gen. Heidi Hoyle, Chief of Ordnance, spoke on behalf of the Combined Arms Support Command and Fort Lee command teams. "Though I'm new to Fort Lee, I'm no stranger to what draws us here today," she said while reminding everyone that the Memorial Day observance just days from then would bring the entire nation together in remembrance of the fallen.
"Our generation is one that has seen war in distant places. I'm certain there's not one among us who has not known loss. This date for us is real; it's not just a long weekend or an opportunity for time off," Hoyle said. "You Gold Star Family members know exactly what I mean, and my heart goes out to you. Your presence here today, your daily courage, your sacrifice in the name of the country and its citizens, is what this is all about. Thank you for all that you do; for what you have done, and for all that you have given to us as a nation."
The general then recounted a memory of expressed condolences to the father of a fallen Soldier in one of the unit's she commanded. Without scripting or forethought, she simply said "I am sorry for our loss," and the message was more impactful that she realized.
"He (the father) approached me after the ceremony. 'What you said,' he observed, '... made it clear my son was not only a member of our family, but also part of the Army Family, and that really touched my heart.'
"So that's what I leave you with today; the emphasis that each and every one of you is a part of the Fort Lee Army Family," she said, speaking directly to the Gold Star attendees. "I hope you continue to feel that each day, and that you can draw strength from us as we do from you."
Col. Tamatha A. Patterson, the officer in charge of CASCOM's G-3/5/7 division, spoke on behalf of the Gold Star Families. Opting to read quickly from a prepared script, she walked the audience through the moments of Sept. 11, 2001, specifically focusing on the plane that crashed into the Pentagon at 9:40 a.m.
"It killed everyone on board ... and 124 people in the building. My husband, Maj. Clifford L. Patterson Jr., was one of those lives lost that day. He was an infantryman working in his functional branch as comptroller, and unbeknownst to me, Cliff's entire office had relocated in the Pentagon to the side that was hit. He along with (many others) went to work that morning focusing on how to keep our nation safe. No one knew they would pay the ultimate sacrifice by losing their lives that day."
Getting past the loss was difficult, Patterson observed. She held on to anger amid her grief and blocked out offers of help from others. She said her only anchor was her two sons - Clifford, then age 5, and Cody, 1 - who needed her to maintain a home and sense of stability.
"Eventually, I realized that anger was preventing me from enjoying my life to the fullest," Patterson said. "I heard a sermon at church about Job, a man who lost everything - his family, his wealth, everything besides his soul - but it did not deter him from his faith, and that became my belief as well."
Along with the change in perception came the understanding of being given a second chance on life, the colonel related later in her remarks.
"You see, I too could have been killed that day. I was scheduled to go to the Pentagon to pick up a document," she said with a prolonged pause to settle her emotions. "I got up that morning to drop my boys off - the oldest at kindergarten and my baby at daycare - and when I arrived at my office, the package I was planning to pick up was sitting on my desk. After that, I went about my duties like I always did until approximately 9:40 a.m. when my life changed forever."
Patterson summed up the lessons learned, noting the importance of looking up old friends, sitting back and sharing laughs, giving hugs and remembering to express love to family members every chance one gets.
"I will tell you, I still see Cliff's face," she said with another pause. "It's like I'm there on that morning, and we're putting the boys in the truck ... (giving) kisses to each other and he's walking away. Every year on 9-11, I see his face, and he's still smiling as he walks away.
"It's with that memory that I tell you to show your love every day because you don't know when it's your last moment. Be a good friend. Thoroughly choose happiness. There's so much stuff going on in the world, it's easy to get down and be depressed. Let the things that don't matter go, just let them go. Choose to be happy."
With remarks concluded, the ACS staff distributed tiny paper envelopes containing the hibernating butterflies. Minutes later, the spouses and families would carefully peel open the packets and watch the tiny creatures wake up and flutter away.
"In this moment, I know he's looking down on me and smiling," said participant Joanne Duncan of her "baby brother" Pfc. Stewart Hemp, who died in August 1969 while serving in Vietnam. The 19-year-old Soldier carried two wounded comrades out of the line of fire and was mortally wounded while attempting to rescue a third. The Army awarded him a posthumous Silver Star medal.
"I know he's proud I got to the point where I can do things like this and share in supporting others," Duncan continued. "He has been gone a long time, but I still miss him every day - and these moments are so special because they bring that recognition and remembrance, particularly for the Vietnam veterans who for so long had been forgotten.
"All of this (the program, the ceremony and the Memorial Garden, she clarified) means a lot. It is the place where I feel honored and a sense of belonging among the Gold Star Families. They helped me through all the years of missing my brother and coming to terms with his loss. Now, I want to help others in the same way. That's also what makes this important to me."
Decked out in a yellow pantsuit - the color being a favorite of her departed husband - Elizabeth Lent dabbed at tears while speaking about the ceremony and the memories of her "soulmate," Floyd Lent Jr., a retired sergeant first class who died from health issues in July 2016.
"(This ceremony) is comforting because I know he's honored, not just in my heart or my family's heart, but the entire Fort Lee's heart," she said. "It shows me I'm not alone in my grief. (The survivor outreach program gives me) the opportunity to share what I'm going through with other family members. We can hold each other up, and we can take one step forward every day together."
The Gold Star Spouse said one word came to mind - "Godspeed" - as her butterfly fluttered away. "We were both very devoted to God, country and family," she proudly said. "I miss him with all my heart, but I know we had a long journey, and it was a good journey."