Gold Star children on life without their heroes
Editor’s Note: This story includes accounts of self-harm and suicide. The National Suicide Prevention Hotline number, a free and confidential service, is 988.
NSPH is also online and has representatives available to talk through chat at suicidepreventionlifeline.org.
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Bailey Donahue’s father was killed in Afghanistan in 2014. Maria Rossi lost her dad in 2016. They’re called Gold Star children.
“In the civilian world, I feel like they have no idea who we are,” Maria Rossi says. “When I bring up the term ‘Gold Star families’ to a civilian, I have to explain what it is and I have to tell my story to them.”
Rossi adds: “Losing a parent changes your life drastically. It gets easier. But my biggest struggle, I think, has been trying to find meaning in it.”
Today, On Point: Gold Star children on who and what they lost — and how they’re filling the void.
Bailey Donahue, whose father, Army Major Mike Donahue, died from an IED in Afghanistan in September 2014 at the age of 41, with 23 days remaining in his deployment. Bailey works as an enrollment administrator at the non-profit Children of Fallen Patriots.
Maria Rossi, who lost her father, Major General John Rossi, to suicide in July 2016.
Thomas Brennan, Founder and Executive Director of The War Horse, a non-profit online newsroom focused on military service. He served as an infantryman in Iraq and Afghanistan. As a Marine squad leader in Afghanistan’s Helmand Province, he was wounded on foot patrol and forced into medical retirement.
ANTHONY BROOKS: Army Major Mike Donahue was killed by a roadside bomb in Afghanistan in 2014. that made his then 16-year-old daughter, Bailey Donahue, a Gold Star kid. As Americans prepare to celebrate Memorial Day weekend, we’re going to spend some time today hearing about what it’s like to have a parent in the military who didn’t make it home.
We’re talking about families who pay a painful price that too many of us know too little about. Military children and other family members are asked to watch as their loved ones train and deploy and sometimes die. These families take on a terrible burden that few of us think about, let alone discuss. Now, Bailey Donahue wrote an essay about losing her dad as part of a writing seminar for Gold Star children and their siblings organized by the online publication The War Horse. Bailey is with us live today. But first, here she is reading her essay. It’s called Embrace the Suck.
BAILEY DONAHUE [reading]: It’s Saturday morning in Lynchburg, Virginia, shortly before sunrise. I lace my Nike’s and head out the door for a weekly run with my dad. I’m 12 years old. I tiptoe down the steps and gently open and close the front door so I don’t disturb my mother and siblings still asleep in their beds.
My father and I hop in his 1984 Jeep Cherokee and cruise to the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. The sound of Mumford and Sons blares from the speakers as the cool wind blows through our hair. When we arrive at the base of the trail, the sky is split into deep blue and orange streaks, the afterglow that appears for only a few minutes after sunrise.
I follow his lead. As we jog down the path, our legs fly over the roots and leaves as the sound of our footsteps and breaths echo in sync along the winding trails. A couple of miles in, he points to one mountain, Sharp Top, as we stretch at an overlook. “Look, Bailey,” he says. “That’s your mountain.” A few miles later, when fatigue kicks in from the altitude, he repeats the same words he always says when grit is required more than ever before: “Embrace the suck.”
When my father and I arrive back home, he begins making breakfast. The smell of pancakes and coffee blends with the sounds of Pearl Jam. My brother, sister and my mom slowly gather at the dining room table. We eat, make a plan for how we want to spend the day, and then leisurely stack dirty dishes into the dishwasher.
The time I spend with my dad is rare, but intentional. Like wearing the necklace he gave me from Iraq when I turned ten: brittle from age and reserved for most special occasions. I’m always happier when I’m with him, especially on the days he drops me off at school because they are so rare. They mean he isn’t at work or deployed to another combat zone. It means more time with my partner in crime, and it means one more ride in his beat up, faded-from-the-sun Jeep and looking at him behind the driver’s seat, saying three words I can still hear: “Do good things.”
It’s a Tuesday afternoon on September 16, 2014. I am 16. The day ended 10 minutes ago but I’m working on an extra credit assignment with my brother, Seamus, who shares a history class with me. When it’s over, we walk down the hall and through the side doors of our school, laughing over stupid jokes before we go our separate ways. He has cross-country practice, and my mom is picking me up. She’s never late.
Five minutes pass. I begin to worry. Another five minutes pass. Now I’m scared. Now 15 minutes have passed. I call her cell phone. No response. Another five minutes pass. Silence. After 25 minutes, I begin pacing the sidewalk. 30 minutes. Still no response. I call again and again.
My mother finally picks up. I can feel her tears as she tells me a family friend will pick me up. She says she has to stay late at work. I know she is lying. Our conversation is abrupt. She tells me she loves me. I call my best friend, Jessie. “I hope this doesn’t have anything to do with my dad,” I tell her.
A few minutes later, my mom’s friend arrives. I pelt her with questions. I know something is wrong. She tells me she doesn’t know, that she doesn’t have any answers. I know she is lying. I worry that my dad is dead.
Then, as we round the corner of my street, I see a strange car in my driveway and I know.
It takes me only a few steps to get to my front door. I turn the door handle with the greatest hesitancy that my body can allow.
“I know he’s out there hiding. You just have to go find him.”
I walk towards my mom and wrap my arms around her. In my head, I see a montage of future moments flash in my mind — college acceptance, graduation, the flat tires and car problems he’s supposed to help fix, getting my first job, walking down the aisle on my wedding day, the marathon we were supposed to run together — but this time without my dad, all taken away by a Taliban fighter.
After a few seconds, I let go of my mother and slowly walk upstairs to my room. I shut my door and sit on my bed. Time stops. All I can hear is the watch on my bedside table: Tick, tick, tick. The minute hand moves forward without me. I sit for a while without moving. I stare blankly.
My mom’s friend slowly opens my door and embraces me. I begin to feel my body again. She ushers me downstairs as our house fills with family, friends and strangers. My mom is on all fours on our front lawn, throwing up, as our casualty assistance officer drives down the street and parks in our driveway. Next, I see Seamus walk through the front door. His eyes are the saddest I’ve seen them. I walk back upstairs, wanting to hide from it all.
My dad was supposed to be home already, but he was involuntarily extended for 30 days. He had just 23 days of his deployment remaining.
Time passes. I hear the house pile with more people. More time passes. I isolate myself from it all.
From my bedroom, I hear my brother and another family friend leave to pick up my older sister, Victoria, from college in Boone, North Carolina. My mom’s greatest fear was that my sister would find out about our dad from someone else, so she told her over the phone, only after telling my sister to hand the phone to her roommate.
“I need you to step into a different room and let me know when you have. I’m about to tell Victoria that her father’s dead, and I need you to be by her side until we can pick her up so she’s safe.”
I lay on my bed beneath the sheets. I listen to the watch on my bedside table again: Tick, tick, tick.
It’s Wednesday morning, my first day waking up as a Gold Star child. As I open my eyes, I think my dad’s death was just a nightmare. Then I hear my mom’s sharp, reverberating cries and I remember our new reality.
Moments later, a family friend enters my bedroom. We have to fly to Delaware for my dad’s dignified transfer. I sit on my floor and stare blankly in my mirror. My mom’s friend brushes my hair. She tells me I’ll look beautiful. I feel nauseous.
Later in the day, as the planes wheels on a commercial flight lift from the tarmac, tears stream down my face. I hope the flight will crash.
As my family and I arrive at a hotel, my mom talks to the widow of someone killed alongside my dad. She has two children. One is a young daughter. I sit with her, broken by her youth. She is nine years old.
We eventually drive to Dover Air Force Base and are shuttled to the tarmac. We wait. When the tail of the plane opens, six uniformed men march on board and carry my dad’s flag draped coffin from the aircraft to American soil. It’s dark outside except for the lights illuminating the runway. A spotlight on the dream I can’t wake up from.
We stand in silence until my mom points out a butterfly that has landed on my dad’s casket. It’s in the direct light. You can’t miss it. I smile. As they carry him to the vehicle, the butterfly flies away.
The next two weeks are a blur and, before I know it, I’m looking at my dad in his casket. He looks real and absent at the same time. Until now, none of it felt real.
Later, the awareness of his absence grows as I hear the sharp, hollow sounds of horses drawing louder on the roads between fields of green and rows of white, leading my father’s flag-draped silver box into Section 60. When the horses come to a stop, eight men in uniform lift his casket and march in sync. They set him down a few feet away from rows of chairs. Red roses mark our seats.
When the chaplain begins to speak, all falls silent. His words are beautiful, but I can’t process them. I’m beginning to realize that I will never see my dad again.
A soldier plays Amazing Grace on the bagpipes. A retired soldier replaces an 82nd Airborne medallion on my dad’s casket. Seven men in crisp uniforms each fire their rifles three times. A bugler plays Taps.
I can’t accept that he’s a few feet away from me, waiting to join a sea of white stones and perfectly cut green grass.
I don’t want to walk away. My father, Mike Donahue, is dead.
BROOKS: Bailey Donahue. Her father, Army Major Mike Donahue, was killed by a roadside bomb in Afghanistan in 2014. Part two of her essay comes later this hour. And Bailey joins me now from New York. She works as an enrollment administrator at the nonprofit Children of Fallen Patriots. Bailey Donohue, welcome to On Point.
DONAHUE: Hi. Thank you so much. I’m so excited to be here.
BROOKS: Well, it’s really good to have you. And I want to thank you for that essay. It was very moving. I wonder, Bailey, if you could just tell us a little bit more about your father, how you like to remember him?
DONAHUE: Yeah. So my dad, he was such a strong-willed, strong-minded person. And I looked up to him mostly just as a father figure, rather than seeing him in a military uniform. So for me, growing up, he was just my partner in crime, somebody that I always enjoyed spending time with. He was my best friend and filled up so many pieces of me growing up. And he definitely taught me so much as well.
BROOKS: You began that essay talking about running with your dad, jogging with him and him kind of pushing you when things got hard. Is that something you did a lot with him?
DONAHUE: Yes, absolutely. He definitely did push me. He was so soft, but at the same time so strong in the sense that he taught me from a very young age to push past all boundaries and to really just “embrace the suck.” Truly.
BROOKS: Right, “embrace the suck.” Now, you describe a kind of blacking out, almost, when you heard the terrible news that that he was killed in Afghanistan. You remember some things; Other things are a blur. Can you tell us a little bit more about that initial reaction and what it felt like to return, to sort of land in the real world and start making sense of what happened?
DONAHUE: Absolutely. A lot of those times were very much filled with blacking out, for lack of better terms. I remember growing up and every time my dad was on deployment, feeling in the back of my head that sense of anxiety, knowing that somebody that I loved very much was in a very potential dangerous situation at all times. So growing up, just any sort of phone call, any sort of potential situation where bad news could arise. That was always a fear. But at the same time it was something that was so extreme that it’s one of those situations where you don’t think that something would happen until it does happen.
So in finding out the news, it kind of meshed a little bit over time. After school, all these little pieces added up — between knowing that I was supposed to be picked up for my mom but feeling in the back of my head, “Something is wrong.” And then that fear coming from deep down in my heart of “I just can’t even accept if this has anything to do with my dad.” Just trying to rationalize all other potential situations. So there was a lot of being physically in the moment and realizing this could potentially happen, but then at the same time being afraid of finding out that news.
BROOKS: Of course, very understandable. Bailey, I’m wondering if your dad, Army Major Mike Donahue. I mean, you knew obviously when he was deployed to dangerous places that he was running a risk. Did he talk to you about that, about the possibility that he might not come back?
DONAHUE: He talked more about it with my older brother than anything. But I believe that the little — I think that there were hidden messages, honestly.
He always said, “Do good things.” And I think that in his last deployment, reading that in the letters that we had sent back and forth to each other, they kind of started having a little bit more of a meaning, almost as a statement rather than just a — He used to say it just kind of as a goodbye, like “Do good things,” rather than saying goodbye. So I think that there were definitely some — That reality that he knew there was a likelihood of him not coming home.
BROOKS: So that “do good things” that he would urge you to do, that he’d say to you was kind of a — you took it, maybe even subconsciously, as “If I don’t come back, just remember this: Do good things?”
DONAHUE: Yes, absolutely.
BROOKS: Yeah. Can I ask how you are today? And specifically, you know, as the nation prepares to celebrate the long Memorial Day weekend, what are you thinking about? How are you doing?
DONAHUE: Absolutely. So it’s interesting. I think that grief plays such a longitudinal role in our lives and there are so many different chapters of our lives where we experience — where we are almost reminded of the pain. And to be honest, I think I spent a very long time of my life through the grieving process, more so recently in the past few years, just not necessarily paying close attention and feeling that pain.
So it’s been nine years and it really took until experiencing the writing seminar with The War Horse a couple of weeks ago to really just unplug for a moment and to tap into all of those feelings. That in itself was such a healing experience. I can’t even articulate it.
BROOKS: I’m really intrigued about this because you wrote so beautifully and powerfully. What was it about that writing experience that brought you — to the extent that it brought you some kind of relief? What was it about the writing experience that did that?
DONAHUE: I think that it was a multitude of things. I think that first and foremost, just the the group setting, the safe space, the staff, every single element that went into it to create that atmosphere for us to truly express ourselves. That was powerful and so rare. On top of being in a ranch in Texas, completely unplugged. That in itself, I mean, we all got the opportunity to really think about our own personal stories.
Like I said, for a long time, I think that I was not necessarily tapping into the pain behind it all. And I was not feeling it, if that makes sense. And so given that opportunity to then also find a way to express ourselves creatively through writing and learning about it, learning about writing and speaking with other people about the beauty of creative expression and being in that safe space altogether. I think it was just a multitude of things that really led up to being able to express ourselves.
BROOKS: I want to introduce someone else. And Bailey, you met her at The War Horse’s Writers Seminar for Gold Star children. Joining us from Atlanta, Georgia, is Maria Rossi. She lost her father, Major General John Rossi, in July 2016 when she was 25 years old. Maria, thank you so much for for being with us. We really appreciate it.
MARIA ROSSI: Hi, Anthony. Thank you for having me. And hi, Bailey.
DONAHUE: Hi, Maria.
BROOKS: So, Maria, tell us something about your father. Tell us how he died, if you can, first of all.
ROSSI: Yeah, of course. So I lost my father July of 2016 to suicide. And it’s a difficult thing to experience. You know, it’s hard to put into words because words ;ole “traumatic” and “shocking” or “life-changing” just don’t seem to be enough. But needless to say, it was the worst day of my life.
I was older when it happened. You know, I was 25 at the time. So my experience definitely differs from Bailey’s in a lot of ways. But one thing I realized, especially recently at the seminar with the other fellows was the similarities that we shared in our tragedies and in our grief.
BROOKS: And this was a seminar that brought together Gold Star children, essentially, to write about their their experiences. And I’m wondering if you, just because I want to honor these folks as real people, (could) tell us more about your father, how you remember him, what he was like?
ROSSI: Yeah, absolutely. My father was the greatest man I’ve ever known. He was an Italian from New York. And I see a lot of myself in him, like my sense of humor. The things that I find funny that other people may not but I know he and I would just die laughing about.
He was incredibly strong and brave. I was just in awe always, watching him, and seeing the people — whether they were his soldiers or just his friends and family — how they looked up to him. And he was a guy that you could go to and you knew he would always give you great advice and you trusted his words and he was just somebody that you could respect.
BROOKS: If I can, I want to ask you about what might have led up to his suicide. Were there any clues that he was depressed, that he was overwhelmed? I mean, looking back, did you was there a sense that this might be coming around the corner?
ROSSI: You know. Like looking back, I can see. “Okay, maybe this was a sign.” But nothing would have ever prepared me or made me think that it would have led to his death. I mean, we weren’t, you know, I was living away from him at the time, so I wasn’t speaking to him, like, on a regular basis.
So I wasn’t there to see him day to day. But just from things I’ve heard from family and friends, I think he might have been just getting a little overwhelmed with the new job and what he was about to be taking on. I’m sorry that he didn’t see what everybody else saw in him, you know, that he could handle anything and and could excel at anything.
BROOKS: Maria, you also wrote an essay for The War Horse, which is going to be published soon. I’ve read it. It’s wonderful. And I was wondering if you could read an excerpt from it, which I believe you have right there?
ROSSI: Yes, absolutely. I’d love to.
BROOKS: Go ahead.
ROSSI [reading]: The priest called my name and I rose from the cold wooden bench. The blood rushed to my head. I stood up there with the words I yearned to say burning in my throat like a hot brand iron begging for the sweet relief of water. But I, too, went on about his bravery, leadership and intelligence and how he was the greatest father a girl could have. I, too, threw in a joke about his espresso.
I said what I thought they all needed to hear. I said what I thought would make them all feel better. But all I wanted to say was, “Daddy, I’m sorry. You don’t have to worry. I love you.”
Fixating on the rows of poignant smiles staring up at me, I avoided looking at his draped casket. But as we followed it up the aisle and out of the church, I heard that haunting voice in my head: “You missed your chance again.”
BROOKS: Maria, “You missed your chance again,” that was the final line of that. What was the chance you missed?
ROSSI: Well, when my father passed, we were at odds. You know, there was no malice or hate or anything like that. We were just in an awkward, not really speaking terms. I was going through a lot in my life, about to be newly single mother of a five year old and he was just worried about me, like any parent would be. And I was just too stubborn and immature to admit that. So when he died, I felt this guilt thinking that he died not knowing I loved him or just not being able to make things right.
BROOKS: I’m so sorry to hear that. That’s got to be a terrible thing. I mean, all families have these moments where, you know, you sort of lose contact with each other. And to have that possibility of resolving that snatched away from you, it sounds very difficult.
I want to ask you both — and Bailey, I want to come back to you: As the nation prepares to celebrate this long Memorial Day weekend, I’m just wondering: What do you want the average American to think about who might not have experienced the kind of grief and loss that you have felt and continue to feel? What should we be thinking about as we approach Memorial Day?
DONAHUE: I think that simply just remembering and having that awareness. It’s interesting. There are certain things that you can’t necessarily understand until you experience it yourself, and that’s okay. But at the same time, just to know, just to understand the meaning behind Memorial Day and to try to understand the purpose behind it and to keep that in the back of your mind — honestly, in the front of your mind — just remembering. That’s what I would say.
BROOKS: Maria, same question to you.
ROSSI: Yeah, absolutely what Bailey said. Really, I want America to know that we’re here. And we appreciate their support for Gold Star families. You know, Memorial Weekend, it’s seen as a long weekend to have a barbecue with your friends or take your family to the beach. And absolutely, you should do that and enjoy that because that’s what our dads fought for was the freedoms to do that. So embrace it and remember it.
BROOKS: So let’s listen to the rest of Bailey’s essay, which she wrote for The War Horse about life after her father’s death.
DONAHUE [reading]: It’s a Wednesday in May. I’m 25 years old. It’s just before sunrise when I put on my Hokas and tiptoe over the creaky wood of the cabin I’m sharing with others during a retreat, careful not to wake them. I gently open and close the front door, then walk down the steps and stretch.
I follow the dirt path that leads to the end of the ranch, the sound of my dad’s playlist blaring in my headphones as I run alone down a Texas road. With each step, the sky splits into deep blue and orange streaks. My feet strike the pavement as I listen to the playlist my dad and I would blast in his Jeep to and from our weekend runs. A few miles later, when fatigue begins to kick in, I hear the same words my father would always say when grit was required: “Embrace the suck.”
As I gain momentum, my thoughts come flooding. I think about how as a child I didn’t like talking to anyone. I was polite but silent. I felt like people in my life were temporary, just like the whispers my brother and I heard in the hallway when we returned to school two weeks after our dad was killed. I hated it. And for a while I was confused by how to respond when classmates asked how it happened. Talking about losing my father at war over cafeteria food in high school doesn’t exactly go with prom themes or anyone’s weekend plans.
I think about how I hated hearing my school make an announcement about my dad over the intercom. I hated strangers texting their condolences to me, and I hated seeing my mom cry. I hated that I couldn’t focus in class or bear to think about taking the SATs or where I wanted to apply to college. And that what I went to college, I tried to hide my pain for so long that I no longer recognized myself.
I hated that I was afraid to take up any space at all until I filled my space up so much that I didn’t have room to feel anything anymore. Worst of all, I grew to hate myself so much that I was considering how much easier it would be if everything just stopped. I was bitter. I was broken.
But as I continue to run, I begin to realize all the beautiful things that wouldn’t have happened had I not lost my dad. It was finally sinking in that I am who I am today because of my father: How he trained me and how I now view his loss.
I push on under the vast Texas sky. I begin to realize the gifts my father has given me, even in loss. Because of my dad, I recognize the individual value of every person I meet. Because of my dad, I live my life with intention and purpose. I connect more deeply with people. Because of my dad, I know the finiteness of life and the importance of the words spoken about your character when your life comes to an end.
Because of my dad, I graduated from college debt-free and now serve families like mine through the Children of Fallen Patriots Foundation. I’ve met friends who also lost a parent and I ran my first Wear Blue marathon with them. Because of my dad, I met President Joe Biden and First Lady Jill Biden and asked her what advice she had for a 24 year old. “Be kind,” the First Lady told me. “Always be kind.”
I cannot change the fact that I lost my father. But I can learn to love where I am and find meaning while sitting in discomfort. Above all, I can find the good in every day. I can embrace the suck. It’s the duality of fullness and emptiness at the same time. Often it’s being stuck in two places at once. On one hand, I’m stuck with the grief of losing a piece of myself. On the other, I’m hungry to grow older, to take all that life has to offer.
Living without him is a race that never ends. Some moments, I feel my feet strike the pavement paired with an inner fullness of purpose and direction. In other moments, I’m on the side of the road, hunched over the curb with my heartbeat throbbing in my ears and my mind, convincing myself I can make it to the next light post.
I keep running. Not running away, not running to — but running with. Now I hear the echo of his voice in my head: “Do good things.”
BROOKS: Bailey Donahue reading from her essay about life after her father’s death in Afghanistan. Maria and Bailey, stand by because I want to bring in one more voice to this conversation. Joining us from Washington is Thomas Brennan. He’s executive director of The War Horse, a nonprofit newsroom focused on military service. And he’s the guy who brought you two together for the seminar.
Thomas is a Marine veteran who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. He was a squad leader in Afghanistan’s Helmand Province, where he was wounded and forced into medical retirement. Thomas, welcome to On Point.
THOMAS BRENNAN: Thank you for having me.
BROOKS: I’d love to just ask you — I know you know Bailey and Maria, but you’ve been listening along. What stands out in what you’re hearing them talk about?
BRENNAN: I think what stands out is how openly they’re talking about it. Because when I met them a few weeks ago, during the beginning of the seminar, they weren’t very confident that they had a story that that America needed to hear. And now we’re having a conversation with you and lots of people are listening. So the progress that they’ve made has just been truly phenomenal. And the words that they have put down on the page, I’m just so incredibly proud of the hard work that they put into it and the beautiful things that they’ve written as a result.
BROOKS: Can you tell us about the War Horse seminars and the thinking behind them and what you want to accomplish with them?
BRENNAN: So they all started because when I first got wounded as a marine, it was journalists that mentored me and helped me learn how to write and mentored me into my career in journalism. So when I became a reporter and started The War Horse, I wanted to pass on that that incredible access that I’d been afforded early on in my career.
The seminars bring together — they’re expenses-paid weeks thanks to our generous donors. And they bring together award-winning journalists and authors and publishers. And I think the best thing that we do is help the fellows find the confidence that they have a story worth writing and that America needs to hear.
BROOKS: Bailey and Maria and I’ll start with you, Maria: Thomas was talking there about when you first came to that seminar, you didn’t have the confidence or you didn’t think you had a story to tell. Can you talk a little bit about that, sort of the importance, I guess, of that evolution of realizing that you did have a story to tell that people like me and across the country would be interested to hear?
ROSSI: Absolutely. Yeah, in the beginning I didn’t think I had a story to tell or I didn’t think that I would be able to tell it well and do honor to my father and make my family proud. I was terrified. You know, I missed the flight to go to the seminar because I was so scared of just not, you know, doing what I thought was expected of me. But Thomas encouraged me and motivated me and supported me every step of the way. And I got on the plane and it was the best experience of my life.
I don’t know if they’ll ever understand what exactly they did for me. They gave me a chance to connect with my father and use my words and ability to write and do something with it, something for him. And they gave me that chance, the outlet I needed, the courage to say the words and to write my story. And I’m just so thankful for them, for believing in my story and believing in me.
BROOKS: And Bailey, same question to you. Can you talk a little bit about that evolution from not being certain that you had a story to tell and the benefit that you derived from telling that story?
DONAHUE: Yeah, I feel like there was so much progression in such a small period of time. Just like Maria, I mean, I started the week, honestly, feeling like I didn’t have the courage to put down anything onto paper. And also not even really knowing exactly where to start. Because honestly, for so long I just wasn’t completely emotionally open to tell my story.
And I think that there are times where I’ve shared my story, but I haven’t necessarily shown up in the most authentic way. I haven’t been able to really tap into some of the hardest emotions that I’ve struggled with. I just think that there were some gaps. And the seminar was really what challenged me in all the best ways to fill those gaps and to dive deeper — just the space that we had to be able to express ourselves so freely and encourage each other and to really just listen to each other’s stories.
And we made jokes throughout the week: Every time one of us would share something organically in conversation, another person would say, “Write that down.” So it was a beautiful experience. And the courage, just as Maria spoke about, to really speak and write from the heart and the mind, that was that was everything. Honestly it was like completely two different sides from day one to day five.
BROOKS: Thomas, I want to ask you — Actually, I want to ask all three of you about this, but I’m going to start with you: On the website of The War Horse, it’s the application, essentially, for the seminar, there’s some really powerful writing. I’m just going to read one paragraph.
It says: “For two decades, military children and family members watched as their loved ones trained and deployed in support of the global War on Terror. In doing so, they shouldered a unique burden that few discuss that too often is misunderstood or ignored by the American public.” I paraphrased that in the introduction to this program. But Thomas, can you talk a little bit more about that, particularly the idea that “too often misunderstood or ignored by the American public.” What are you referring to there?
BRENNAN: I think that there is an incredibly significant military and civilian divide that exists in our country. It’s the double edged sword that is the all-volunteer military force. It means that some people, thankfully, won’t know the realities of combat. But it means that a smaller and smaller population of Americans are serving and that means that there’s a smaller percentage of families as well.
And as that military and civilian divide grows, those families like Bailey’s and like Maria’s are more and more misunderstood by the American public. That’s not good. That’s not good for us as a democracy. It’s not good for us as a public that needs to understand what we ask of military families.
BROOKS: That’s well expressed. What do you think the solution is? How do we make the broader public more aware, more appreciative, more understanding of what families like Bailey’s family and Maria’s family have gone through?
BRENNAN: My advice when people ask that is I always suggest to ask a veteran or military family member, when you want to know about service, start with the happiest memory. Don’t start with doom and gloom, because if you ask me about the my worst time in uniform, it’s going to be when Marines that I was serving with died and they had kids. Like, the worst thing for me was thinking about the kids back home. We always think about the kids and most people don’t understand the burden that the kids shoulder when we send people off to war.
BROOKS: Bailey and Maria, I’d like to get you to chime in on that very sort of deep idea about how the broader American public really misunderstands or ignores what families like yours go through. Can you take a whack at that, Bailey?
DONAHUE: Yeah. So I think that there’s a little bit of a divide sometimes and that’s just speaking from my experience, just growing up in a military family and the structure that comes with that and the moves that come with that and the experiences, that’s really what shaped my family and I, my siblings and I, from the beginning. I mean, that’s part of who I am.
And I noticed this bit of a divide when I started growing up and experiencing new things and and honestly, just getting into the real world, for lack of better terms and just not necessarily feeling connected in some aspects. So I think and just as I was saying earlier, it’s kind of hard to truly understand something if you haven’t experienced it. But then there’s that level of empathy that you could feel, and that’s the beauty in listening to these stories, really just understanding other people’s experiences and that this is something that truly matters.
BROOKS: Bailey Donohue and Maria Rossi. Your dads died while serving this country, while working for all of us. So, in addition to my condolences, I want to say thank you. I want to thank you for their service and their sacrifice — for your sacrifices as well. And same to you, Thomas Brennan, founder and executive director of The War Horse. I wish you all a happy Memorial Day and may it be a day that brings you all closer to peace. Thank you for being on the show.
BRENNAN: Thank you for having us.
ROSSI: Thank you.
DONAHUE: Thank you.
This article was originally published on WBUR.org.
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