A 20-mile trek throughout the D.C. area recently brought people together from across the U.S. to honor fallen military members and mark the beginning of “Memorial May.”
Created in 2014 by three Marine Corps aviators, the Wingman Foundation, an all-volunteer nonprofit, assists families after fatal aviation mishaps. It provides financial assistance for funerals, travel and lodging, as well as emotional support to Gold Star families.
At 8 a.m., walkers clad in matching red T-shirts began their 2019 Memorial Walk in Arlington, Va. The group then made their way through the D.C. metro area, walking past the National Cathedral, Navy-Merchant Marine Memorial, Washington Monument, Arlington National Cemetery and the US Marine Corps War Memorial.
At every mile, the group paused to pay tribute to individual service members, beginning with a mishap from 2006 and ending with one from March 2019. Each ceremony involved a brief summary of what happened, several photos of the individuals, and details about the lives and personalities of the fallen. Attendees with personal connections to the individuals were also invited to contribute their own memories.
Every attendee had a reason to participate in the walk.
Gold Star mother Robyn Dudley, fondly called “Mama Duds,” was there for community.
Her son, Staff Sgt. Thomas “TJ” Dudley, was 29 years old when he died on July 7, 2011, while doing combat operations in Afghanistan. It was his sixth tour with the Marine Corps and he was due to return home shortly.
In the wake of her son’s death, Dudley experienced a seemingly impossible struggle with depression. She tried therapy and meditation, but nothing worked for her until she attended an event sponsored by the Wingman Foundation: The Coastal Carolina Memorial 5k Run.
In April, the run was organized in honor of her son. There, she met other Gold Star family members and found renewed strength. T.J.’s unit, stationed overseas, did a virtual run in solidarity, too.
Emotion welled up in Dudley when she described the importance of the Foundation to her. She said, “I feel, for the first time in seven and a half years, that I have a support system.”
Her voice thick, Dudley said, “I wish [the Wingman Foundation] had been there in 2011.”
Dudley’s deep sense of appreciation was also shared by Kiley Frederick, widow of Marine Corps Capt. Jake “Red Stripe” Frederick, who died in a fighter jet crash on Dec. 7, 2016.
Frederick spoke about feeling overwhelmed in the wake of Jake’s death, sitting in her kitchen and not knowing what to do. She had one young child and was pregnant with a second, facing a barrage of questions, needing to make countless decisions and longing for a sense of solace.
After learning about the Wingman Foundation and accepting their help, Frederick was amazed by the comfort they provided.
“My contact from Wingman never left my side,” she said.
Frederick has since gotten increasingly involved with the organization because of her belief in the importance of the work they do; she currently serves as head of communications.
“[The Wingman Foundation is] committed to truly helping the families that are left behind by being a family,” Frederick said. “They bring other Gold Star families together so that we can share our stories, we can relate to people that are going through the same things as us and we can help each other along in our journeys.”
She explained, “So many people have survived what I’ve survived and they’ve come out of it… and they’ve grown from it, and they’ve allowed it to shape who they’re going to become instead of just crush who they are now.”
Among those who give her strength are Gold Star parents Greg and Cosette Spears who came to honor their son, Cpl. Jordan Spears, who was lost at sea on Oct. 1, 2014. Hailing from Memphis, Ind., Spears was three years into a five-year commitment to the Marine Corps, just 21 years old when he died.
During the 20-mile walk, Mr. and Mrs. Spears each wore a button with a picture of Jordan smiling.
Also in attendance was Mark Van Dorn, father of Navy Lt. Wes Van Dorn. His son died during a routine training exercise in a helicopter crash off the coast of Virginia on Jan. 8, 2014.
Wes was 29 at the time of his death, father to two young boys, Jaxton and Maddox, and husband to Nicole. He had been deeply concerned about the safety of the aircraft and was striving to raise awareness about potential issues at the time of the accident.
Working to finish what her husband started, Nicole partnered with investigative journalists to uncover the truth. Her efforts have contributed to a documentary film “Who Killed Lt. Van Dorn?“, and two podcast episodes, including “Pentagon Labyrinth“ from the Project on Government Oversight and “Reveal” from the Center for Investigative Reporting.
The efforts of those journalists, the walk participants and the Wingman Foundation all ultimately serve the same larger purpose: to make space for, and give voice to, the stories of air warriors whose lives ended too soon.
Saturday’s walk provided an opportunity for family members and friends to speak about their loved ones, thus ensuring that those stories are not forgotten.
As Robyn Dudley asserts, “We must keep saying their names.”