Twelve years ago, Jennifer Ballou escorted her husband’s body from Afghanistan to the United States – an atypical situation for a military spouse. But while deployed herself, she received word that he was injured and flew to the hospital where he was treated.
“He apparently had passed just very shortly before I got there,” said Ballou, an Army veteran. “So I kind of saw for myself that he was no longer alive. Because I was expecting to run in and see machines and stuff like that, and he was laying there very peacefully.”
Ballou’s husband, Army Staff Sgt. Edwardo Loredo, was with the 2/508th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 4th Brigade Combat Team, 82nd Airborne Division, as a squad leader when he was wounded by an improvised-explosive device in the Arghandab River Valley.
“A lot of times I say that the day that Eddie died, it’s kind of like the day that I really opened my eyes to what living really means,” Ballou said. “And my life took a complete turn that I just wasn’t anticipating.”
Virtual Memorial Mile
She continues to honor her late husband’s memory, and others will have the chance to do the same through The Unquiet Professional’s Virtual Memorial Mile. Loredo is being recognized, alongside Master Sgt. Gregory Trent, who died in August 2012.
“Even though it’s been almost 12 years … one of my lifelong goals is to keep his memory alive,” Ballou said.
It’s important, according to Beth MacDonald, Trent’s widow, to honor the lives of the lost, not their deaths.
“There’s way more meaning in honoring the life and legacy of the soldier so we can go on in our post-traumatic growth lives and talk about them and remember them and say good things about them,” she said.
MacDonald and Trent met in 2000, while he was on leave on Memorial Day in her hometown.
“He pulled up next to me at a stoplight, and I was like, ‘Oh he’s cute,’” MacDonald said of Trent, who died Aug. 8, 2012, from wounds suffered during small-arms fire while deployed in Shindand Province, Afghanistan.
READ: Love and loss
He had been serving with the 3rd Special Forces Group at the time of his death. Trent was injured July 31, and remained unconscious and in a coma – a scenario MacDonald said the couple had discussed.
“If he were in a coma and not going to recover, he did want me there as he died, if it were an option,” MacDonald said. “I just remember. I held him as he died, and I sang his favorite song to him as he took his last breath. That was the hardest thing to do, to just love him enough to let him go.”
Life’s mission finds Ballou
Mere months after Loredo’s death, Ballou was approached about helping start the Army Resiliency Program at Fort Bragg, North Carolina.
“I believe that as unfortunate as the circumstances are, or were, that there was a reason my family was put in this situation,” Ballou said, “depending on what you believe in, whether it’s God or the universe, I just think that it became my life’s mission to help others through challenging times.”
She was later tapped to be involved with the same program at the Pentagon.
“To put it into perspective, I never imagined that as a dental assistant [in the Army] I would ultimately be working in the highest levels of the Army influencing policy and this program that’s helping soldiers, families and civilians increase their resilience,” Ballou said.
After her military retirement, she worked in corporate America, but found that it wasn’t meant to be. So she became a certified life coach. Then a speaker. And, later, a yogi, ultimately creating A Joyful Life with Jennifer to help female service members and military families.
“I think women in general separate from the military and just have a really unique set of responsibilities and battles you’re fighting every day,” she said. “… Being familiar with that life, it’s a lifestyle and a group of people that just have a special place in my heart.”
Guidance through grief
Years after Trent’s death, MacDonald remarried a fellow widower, combining what she called their “broken little families.”
“Since I remarried my benefits stopped, and I knew that,” she said. “I had tried to do everything I could with DFAS and the VA to make sure everything was captured accurately … At some point, they went all wrong and it was a little over a year-and-a-half ago that I found out there were errors in the system. Gwen wasn’t receiving any of the benefits due [from] DFAS.”
At that point, the Green Beret Foundation stepped in and began helping her through the process. Now, MacDonald is a veteran service officer with the foundation.
“You shouldn’t have to fight so hard to understand a system,” she said. “It’s important to have somebody guide you.”
Having been in her current role for about a year, MacDonald said the Green Beret Foundation is just a “different avenue” to continue her work in family resources and advocacy. Plus, her experiences with Trent give her the ability to mentor other wives and help them have their affairs in order.
“I think it [my experiences] helps me help other people because a lot of soldiers come up to me, [and say], ‘I don’t wanna game the system.’ lt’s not about gaming the system, it’s about getting what you’re entitled to,” she said.
‘You have a chance to rebuild’
Through it all, Ballou has created a new life, building on what started with Loredo and keeping his memory alive.
“For many years when I would tell my story, it kind of ended with Eddie dying and we’re just doing our best,” said Ballou, who has since remarried. “But I found this new love that is really special because he stands by my side as we continue to honor Eddie, which I think is so awesome.”
MacDonald also ensures that the families she works with know their story doesn’t end “with that knock on the door.”
“You have a chance to rebuild,” she said. “And post-traumatic growth is actually a thing and a lot of people take their circumstances and they, unfortunately, let them overtake them. So you don’t have to do that. You can keep going. You can actually get to a point where you have a good day again … There’s a path, and I think the main point is our story doesn’t end in tragedy.”
For more information or to register for the Virtual Memorial Mile, visit The Unquiet Professional website.
Editor’s note: Jennifer Ballou’s last name was spelled incorrectly. It has since been corrected.Read comments