Allison Hall has taken on a once-a-year hobby that is slightly out of her comfort zone.
Every June 1, on the anniversary of her husband's death, she goes tandem skydiving in Vinemont.
It's in the sky -- in the quietness of the aircraft right before her jump, in the rush of adrenaline as she freefalls through the air at 120 miles per hour, in the serenity and stillness of floating with the help of a parachute and the canopy piloting of her tandem instructor -- that she now feels the closest to Staff Sgt. Jeffrey Hall. And once her feet are back on the ground, she can feel her Soldier's love in her very own cheering squad made up of Jeffrey's parents, extended family and friends.
"It's what he loved to do, jump out of airplanes because he was an airborne Ranger," Allison said. "So, we made this a tradition on the first anniversary. His dad and I went that first time and it was such a crazy rush. This is my third time, and every time it has felt so peaceful because you're up there with him. I felt him with us that first time, and every time since I feel him with me. I do this in memory of him."
Allison's Soldier was killed on June 1, 2009, in Nerkh, Afghanistan, when an improvised explosive device detonated near his vehicle. The 28-year-old Huntsville native was a squad leader and a Ranger, a Soldier who was on his third tour in Afghanistan assigned to the 2nd Battalion, 87th Infantry Regiment, 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 10th Mountain Division (Light Infantry) from Fort Drum, N.Y.
Since then, Allison and their daughter -- 3-year-old Audrey -- make an annual trip to North Alabama, staying a few weeks at the Hartselle home of Jeffrey's parents -- Charlie, a Marshall Space Flight Center engineer; and Annette, an executive assistant at the Huntsville Airport Authority. While here, they participate in Memorial Day activities, visit with other relatives, including Jeffrey's sister, and spend time with Jeffrey's friends such as best friend Brian McIntosh. Although Allison and Audrey live in Carson City, Nev., the family manages to get together several times a year to celebrate the love they have for Jeffrey and for each other.
"We do hit bumps in the road, sad times when we wish Jeff was still here with us," Allison said. "Sometimes it feels like three years have been a lifetime and other times it feels like yesterday."
The Hall family, who were first featured in the Nov. 10, 2010 Redstone Rocket, enjoys remembering those early days when Jeffrey brought his girlfriend home to meet his parents. Instead of visiting for a few days, Allison stayed for more than a year.
The young couple met at Fort Drum between Jeffrey's first and second deployments to Afghanistan. As he prepared for that second deployment, Jeffrey wanted to make sure Allison was safe and cared for while he was away. So, only five months into their relationship, they put their things in storage and Allison moved in with Jeffrey's family. Although she was a stranger to them, Jeffrey's parents were happy to welcome their son's girlfriend into their home.
"I had to meet this girl. Jeffrey had an impossible image of perfection for a woman. I didn't think he'd ever get married," Charlie said. "So, when he told us he was head over heels in love with her, I knew I had to meet her."
While she stayed with the family, Allison worked in a local bistro, spent free time getting to know the town Jeffrey grew up in, and grew to love his family and friends.
Jeffrey returned from that deployment in May 2007 and proposed two weeks later. The couple married in July and a year later Audrey was born. Jeffrey got to spend six months with his young family before his third deployment to Afghanistan. He was killed when Audrey was 11 months old.
"He was a great dad," Allison said.
"I truly think God sent Allison to Jeffrey as a gift so he could know the love of a wife and a child," Annette added.
The relationship Annette and Charlie share with Allison has helped them endure their loss.
"We've been very, very blessed because so many military widows, and surviving mothers and fathers don't really know each other. So, once that Soldier gets killed there's no relationship between them," Annette said.
"To us, Allison is more a daughter than a daughter-in-law. Because she lived with us for a year, we established a tight relationship and loved each other before this ever happened."
Allison's daughter has also helped her own mom through the loss of her husband.
"I just couldn't drown in my sorrows. It's not what Jeff would have wanted. I have this little person that I have to take care of," Allison said. "I have to stay strong for Jeff, and be strong for Audrey and the rest of his guys."
Jeffrey's unit was close-knit and many of his fellow Soldiers have visited Allison and Audrey during the past few years. Many have had to deal with survivor's guilt, and Allison has been there to support them through their own grief.
Even now, three years later, the hurt of Jeffrey's loss is still very real for the Hall family. Annette keeps the pain at bay through her work to start a Gold Star Mothers chapter (for the mothers of fallen servicemembers) in North Alabama, and by participating in local veterans and survivor programs, including local Veterans Day, Memorial Day and Armed Forces Celebration Week activities, and the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors. She is willing to share the story of her son with anyone who asks about him.
"To me, it's just a way to make sure people understand that there's a face to the cost of war, that there is a face, a family, and lives affected by war. It's a way to keep the faces of our fallen Soldiers out in front so people don't forget," Annette said.
"I try to take advantage of every opportunity to share Jeff's story so that the public will be able to see and gain a better understanding of the true sacrifice of war."
At Jeffrey's gravesite in the veterans' section of Maple Hill Cemetery, his parents have added a crusading angel to his tombstone and a bench at the foot of his grave where they can sit in the shade of a dogwood tree to reflect and remember.
"People will come by when we're here and they'll ask questions. They say 'thank you' for his sacrifice," Annette said. "Strangers come here on a regular basis and just sit. They're drawn to the gravesite and that's OK with us. We want it to be a place where people can think about the loss of our Soldier and other Soldiers like him."
As a Gold Star Mother, Annette conducted a letter writing campaign that helped raise $17,000 in sponsorships to bring TAPS to Redstone Arsenal for the second time. The TAPS weekend, which was coordinated through the Arsenal's Survivor Outreach Services, brings together families of fallen servicemembers for grief counseling, support, networking and survivor activities. Annette also talks about TAPS, Survivor Outreach Services and her own fallen Soldier to various local groups upon request.
"I feel we owe it to our fallen warriors to put them forth in the public eye whenever we can," Annette said.
When she visits, Allison touches base with other local military widows. She is good friends with Tiffany Little, wife of fallen Soldier Spc. Kyle A. Little, 20, who died May 8, 2007 in Iraq. Their daughters enjoy playing together.
At home in Nevada, Allison enjoys her time as a stay-at-home mom and her work as an independent distributor for Premier Designs Jewelry. She has also fallen in love again and plans to marry in September.
"He knows my past life and he knows what he's dealing with. He knows he has to sacrifice for me to come out here," Allison said. "He is great and supportive. I'm very lucky to be able to find another person who is very understanding and very loving. He's also a good father figure for Audrey, and he has two great kids that are 5 and 8. They have all blended together."
From a young age, Jeffrey was interested in a military career. As a boy, he often played Soldier. He enlisted in 2000 after graduating from Grissom High School. Annette sees other families with sons and daughters like Jeffrey who want to walk the path of military service. Even though it may be hard to accept due to the dangers and risks involved, she said families should stand behind their child's decision to serve their country.
"You've got to give them 110 percent support," she said. "When they are in training where you have no contact, you should write them a letter every day. It means so much to them. And when they get to come home, you should do all their favorite things.
"There's no preparing for the bad that could happen, so don't even think about that. Just think about the positive. If you have to deal with the other, then cross that bridge when it happens."
Living through the loss of her son has made Annette "much more tolerant and forgiving of other people" and has made her want to "hold my loved ones just so close to me and spoil them because you don't know what will happen the next day." For Charlie, it has "made me appreciate life and the important things instead of worrying about the small stuff."
The couple have been married 37 years. They have grieved their son's loss together, yet in their own way, too.
"It's been a rocky road for us," Annette said. "We've managed to stay on the same road, if not the same side of the road. The past year has been the darkest. I feel like the first two years we were in a frozen mode, sort of in shock, and we were trying to take care of everything and everybody else.
"We've started thawing this last year. We're really facing it and dealing with it. Now I feel like I'm coming out into the light, so to speak."
Charlie agreed, adding "the first couple of years you're reacting to it all. Then, the third year comes, and it all sinks in and you have to deal with it on a deeper level. You have to learn how to cope."
Because families go through grief and healing in different ways and at different times, Annette feels strongly that support groups offered through organizations like Survivor Outreach Services and TAPS are important because they can provide the support needed at crucial times for family members.
"We're all in the same shoes, the same boots, but we may be at all different levels. We can help each other and understand each other through those different levels," Annette said.
If she can organize a Gold Star Mothers chapter in North Alabama, Annette said the group would take on projects to support Survivor Outreach Services, coordinated through Redstone's Army Community Service, and to support Soldiers and the families of fallen Soldiers.
For Allison, just knowing that Jeff would want her to go on with her life makes her confident that she and Audrey can be happy as they embark on a new chapter in their lives. But despite all the happiness that life still holds for them, Allison knows that some day she will have to answer hard questions from her daughter.
"She really doesn't understand yet what happened," she said of Audrey, who turns 4 in about a month. "Audrey was only 11 months old when Jeff died. She's had a rollercoaster of not knowing what has happened. It will be a few years before she understands, and I will be there to help her."