FORT LEE, Va. (June 1, 2021) – “We won’t ever forget.”
Garrison Commander Col. Karin L. Watson uttered those words of assurance while speaking to Gold Star Family members and others gathered for the annual Survivor Outreach Services Butterfly Release May 26 at Fort Lee’s Memorial Garden, next to the Army Community Service facility.
Around 50 surviving family members attended this year’s pre-Memorial-Day observance. They were joined by several installation leaders, representatives of the ACS staff and numerous community members who watched the event livestream.
The in-person guests stood around the sun-spotted garden that features a prominent water fountain and winding pathways lined by well-manicured greenery and colorful flowers. Meticulously placed rows of American flags and photos of the fallen throughout the area added to the air of solemnity that permeated the atmosphere.
Offering words of comfort in her featured remarks, Watson reflected on the timing of the event as well as the sadness and heartache Gold Star Family members struggle with after the passing of their loved ones.
“You fight this battle on a personal level … every day, every year,” Watson acknowledged. “You spend occasions like Memorial Day honoring, remembering and grieving; and we can only hope and pray your pain and anguish, as the days go by, gets a little easier although we know it doesn’t ever fully go away.”
Speaking at her first butterfly release event, Watson said she knows of loss and vowed to stand with those experiencing it. Part of that commitment is teaching people about Memorial Day, a time to remember the fallen, which is all too often confused with Veterans Day, an occasion celebrating the service of current and former members of the armed forces.
“I, along with members of this community, stand with you today … to recognize your courage, your service and your sacrifice in the name of freedom and democracy. We will always remember and honor your loved ones.”
Following Watson’s remarks, a Gold Star family member stepped up to the lectern to express feelings for his father and others lost. Ten-year-old Jake Sullivan – looking nervous but resolute – honored the memory of Sgt. 1st Class Brian Sullivan, who completed six combat tours and was formerly assigned to Fort Lee.
“The reason it is important to me to remember my dad and all the fallen men and women is because they are heroes, and we should never forget the sacrifice they gave for us and our country,” he said, reading from prepared text.
A few sniffles could be heard from audience members after Sullivan spoke. Watson presented him with a certificate of appreciation and installation coin.
ACS Director Stephanie Parker also spoke at the event. Her father died the day after her third birthday during the Vietnam War. Never really knowing him, the North Carolinian said her dependent ID card served as the only connection to her Soldier-dad.
“That card gave me the drive and the passion to serve service members across the nation,” Parker noted while describing how she carried it with honor and greatly benefited from it.
Tears streamed down Parker’s cheeks toward the end of her remarks when she thanked Sullivan for his courage and expressed joy about being able to conduct the ceremony in-person this year, contrasting the 2020 event that was virtual due to the threat of COVID-19.
“This is like a family reunion,” she expressed. “I am so happy to see each and every one of you this year.”
Parker went on to say survivors have become family since ACS embarked on the Memorial Garden project 11 years ago – an endeavor solely intended to create a space for reflection, comfort and healing.
“I want to encourage each and every one of you – whether it’s your first or 11th time attending this ceremony – to think of this as a safe place to cry; to hug; to share your feelings; to express; to say the name of your loved one,” she said. “We’re here to honor and remember … and I offer you (wishes for) comfort, happiness and joy. ... The days will get better.”
During the final portion of the ceremony, the Gold Star Family members received their butterflies that slowly awoke from their cold-induced sleep and fluttered into the skies carrying whispered prayers and fond memories of loved ones.
Carol Wittman – accompanied by her husband, retired Maj. Duane Wittman – said after the ceremony the Butterfly Release is a meaningful and strong symbol of support for survivors.
“It’s just nice to know that after a loss no parent would want to go through, we’re not forgotten and we’re embraced by the community,” said the mother of Sgt. Aaron Wittman, who died eight years ago in Afghanistan. “They get us, and they know what we’ve gone through and, hopefully, where we’re going.”
The video of the livestream and multiple photos of the Butterfly Release can be viewed at www.facebook.com/Survivor-Outreach-Services-Fort-Lee-VA.