By Amy Guckeen Tolson, Staff Writer Redstone RocketNovember 16, 2011
REDSTONE ARSENAL, Ala.--The spirit and legacy of retired Lt. Col. Terry Payne and his son Matt propels Tanner Payne forward.
Payne, a sophomore at Grissom High School, has seen great tragedy in his 16 years of life, but with it has come great strength. When he was just 8, his father, Lt. Col. Terry Payne, who had retired from the Army just a month earlier, collapsed and died on the kitchen floor from a left ventricular rupture. A mere seven years later Payne and his mother, Stefanie Payne Armstrong, found his older brother Matthew, about to realize his dream of becoming a Navy SEAL, dead in their Huntsville home, a suicide which resulted from a fatal decision to combine whiskey and firearms.
"Here's Tanner in seven years, at 15, lost his dad who was in Delta Force and bigger than life, and then he loses his brother who helped him get through that and was a hero to him," Payne Armstrong said. "Tanner and Matt were always close, but when Terry died they were super close. They were more than just brothers. They really leaned on each other."
Today, Payne leans on the Army for that strength. The life he leads in the face of grief is the very embodiment of the Army's values -- loyalty, duty, respect, selfless service, honor, integrity -- and particularly, personal courage.
"It was shocking," Payne said of his father's death in March 2004. "I'm not sure if I really knew or understood what really happened until later on. It was pretty bad. When you're younger things tend to hit you a lot harder."
From the time he was little Payne can remember playing Army, running through the fields of the family's then 15 acres of land in Athens, dressing in camouflage, shooting guns, and just getting down and dirty.
"That's all my kids wanted to do, they wanted to be just like their dad," Payne Armstrong said.
Recognizing a lifelong calling in both her sons to the military, after her husband's death, Payne Armstrong, an Army veteran herself, moved the family to Huntsville, where the boys could partake in Grissom High School's JROTC program. For Payne Armstrong, it was the best decision she could make as a mother. Matt flourished in the program, with Tanner, ever influenced by the exceptional examples of his father and older brother, now following in his footsteps as part of the military skills team.
"It instills respect and a lot more discipline, determination and motivation definitely," Payne said of the values he has learned through JROTC.
Once he graduates from high school, Payne hopes to attend North Georgia College, where his father went, and enter the Army, with the goal of making it into the Special Forces.
"My dad was the one that made me want to do this so much, and then my brother made me want to do it even more," Payne said. "They were around me 24/7. They were the biggest influence in my life."
Through Redstone Arsenal's Survivor Outreach Services program, Payne has met a new influence in his life, Capt. Blair Tighe with SMDC, who has reached out to the teenager, and offered to give him a tour of SMDC, as well as other places of interest on post. Connecting with Soldiers that are serving in the Army on post has sparked Payne's interest in a military career that much more.
"It's even more influencing and inspiring for me to want to join the Army, just looking at them and seeing how well put together they are, and how straight up awesome they are," Payne said.
A connection with SOS has helped the Payne family through the grieving process, in addition to their strong support system in North Alabama and across the entire country, as well as support services offered through The Caring House.
"When you see somebody that's further ahead of you on the journey and they're thriving, it does make you realize I can do this, and I think that's what SOS does," Payne Armstrong said. "Just that positive example is very buoying. It buoys you when you're just being buffeted by these raw, desperate, awful feelings. It's being around people who've been through what you've been through. You need several layers of support to make it through. Certainly the military, for us, was instrumental. Just knowing that they're not forgotten is a big comfort."
At SOS, ensuring no fallen Soldier or surviving family member is forgotten is the whole point of the outreach process. While Payne Armstrong's husband didn't die while deployed or on active duty, SOS has embraced the family all the same. Once a military family, always a military family, and through SOS, those surviving military families are also Team Redstone families.
"So many people don't like to think about death because it's too painful," SOS coordinator Kerrie Branson said. "Survivors want to talk about their loved ones. They want people to remember them. As a community, we need to embrace these survivors, hear their stories and tell them we will never forget their sacrifice. The important thing to remember is to not be afraid to talk to them about their fallen Soldier. All paid some, and some paid it all. Our survivors' lives will never be the same, and always void of the Soldier that has died. Those fallen Soldiers would want our community and military to take care of their families by reaching out to them and giving them our care, comfort and love.
"Tanner is a teenage survivor whose father served our country and whose brother was planning to serve our country, and he is extremely involved with ROTC. It's important that Soldiers past and present reach out to kids like this and support and encourage them. In most events, we pair up a mentor with each child, and for kids like Tanner this can be a really great thing in their recovery process. Tanner is an awesome kid with so much potential and zest for life. He has had a lot of tragedy, but we can help by showing our support by building a relationship with him as well as other surviving children."
In many ways, Payne is also a role model for other children who have lost loved ones, an example of resiliency and great emotional strength, despite the odds. Remembering his father and brother and the way they would want him to live keeps him on the right path.
"That just gives me the fortitude to keep going," Payne said.
"What he's already gone through in his short little life, he could've made so many bad choices, he could be just a pile of nerves and depressed and unmotivated and combative," Payne Armstrong said. "He chooses every day to be what he is. It is a choice that you make. We can choose to be despondent and full of despair, or we can choose to live like Matt and Terry did, fully."
For Payne, living life fully includes taking the lessons and pain that accompany the death of the two influential men in his life.
"When you get sad, you get sad, but you have get back up and keep going," Payne said. "Hold onto what you have and cherish it."
An obstacle course, the "House of Payne," was erected in honor of Matt's rich JROTC legacy at Grissom this summer, thanks to the generosity of NASA and several community donors, where Tanner is now able to train while following in his brother's footsteps. Payne and his fellow cadets competed in the Military Skills National Championship earlier this month where they placed third by one point, out of 60 teams.
For more information about Survivor Outreach Services, call 876-5397 or visit www.redstonemwr.com/family/army_community_service/sos.html.