Christmas music played softly in the background as names were called out one-by-one and loved ones hung handmade ornaments on a large tree already full of past year’s decorations — photos, paper combat boots and dog tags adorned its yet-to-be-lit branches.
In all appearances the event looks like your typically holiday party or family get-together, but there will never be any beautifully wrapped presents under this tree and the energy in the room is a mix of anxiety, sadness and yes, even joy. This is a remembrance tree that provides an opportunity for families in Fort Leonard Wood’s Survivor Outreach Services program a chance to honor their departed service members.
Each year Jodi Carmack, SOS coordinator, and her team of volunteers hand-make new ornaments for surviving families to place on the Angel-Bell Tree located in the Army Community Service building, and after the holidays the ornaments are carefully filed away to be placed back on the tree the following year.
Participants were encouraged to say a few words in memory of their loved one if they felt moved to do so, but silence and tears were completely understood.
I listened intently as one mother talked tearfully about how her son was killed in a vehicle accident in Kuwait only three months into his first deployment. He had been in the military for just 18 months at the time of his death. Through her tears she talked of how proud she was and that he loved what he did.
She talked about the amount of love and support her family has received and said, “We became a part of a family we never knew existed.”
All spoke of how important events like this are to them.
I wondered secretly how each one of them could be so strong after what they had experienced.
And then it happened…as I spoke with another mother who lost her only child to a suicide bomber in Afghanistan, I could feel tears streaming down my face and I selfishly thought how thankful I was that the loss was not mine — not my son, not my husband.
This was the day I realized just how very fortunate I was as a military spouse not to have had to experience that level of heartache and grief.
I am one of the lucky ones.
My heart goes out to these families, especially during the holiday season. I can never tell them or even express how truly grateful I am for their loved ones’ service.