People who don't know me well often ask what sort of celebrating I'll be doing over the Memorial Day holiday. I used to be like most of America, planning a barbecue or a weekend laughing at the lake with little or no thought about what the holiday really meant -¬ it was totally valued time off.
Then on October 6, 2011 my family's world changed when my son and proud Marine Scout Sniper, LCpl Benjamin Whetstone Schmidt was killed in Musa Qala District in the Helmand Province of Afghanistan.
They call families of the men and women who died while serving in the military Gold Star families, and Memorial Day honors our fallen loved ones, whether they died to battle wounds, post-traumatic stress disorder-related suicide, training accidents, related battleground or other causes.
Benjamin was killed in the battle arena by a fellow Marine tanker gunner who sprayed bullets on his sniper platoon in two five-second bursts of machine gun fire. Benjamin was getting up to run for cover when the second burst of fire came and struck him in the head. This changed my family.
Two Marines showed up at our doors in San Antonio about 12 hours after he was killed. I wasn't home, but because Benjamin's dad and I are divorced, two Marines went to my door and two to his. They simultaneously rang our doorbells while talking to each other on their cell phones to make sure neither parent got the news before the other.
We were not home. I had left a couple of hours earlier on a plane for Little Rock to visit my boyfriend, as it was his birthday. Benjamin's dad wasn't home, either, but was driving from one place to another somewhere in San Antonio. His wife did answer the door, and my 21-year-old daughter answered mine. This ensured that neither Dave, my ex-husband, nor I would receive the initial shock from the Marines, but by the ones who answered the door.
A lot has happened since then. What I know is that the pain I feel over losing Benjamin is with me every day, all the time.
I was a good-natured person before, and still am; it's just that my chest feels like it just got punched all the time. I look at Benjamin's photos throughout each day and think of him dozens of times. The missing and hurting really is mostly an internal journey, though Benjamin's sister, Casey, is in the same boat and more than willing to talk about him anytime, anyplace. Thank God for her.
Being a Gold Star mother is complicated. I don't want people to feel sorry for me, though I remember feeling sorry for parents who had lost their children prior to my own loss.
My car has a Gold Star family license plate, and on my back window is a sticker with Benjamin's name on it, a soldier with angel wings carrying a rifle, and the dates of his birth and death. I also wear necklaces and bracelets that honor Benjamin every day; it helps. Sometimes people who see it talk to me about it, and I want people to know that families who have lost their child in the military or in war exist by the thousands. We are everywhere.
While nearly 2,300 U.S. troops have been killed in or around Afghanistan as part of Operation Enduring Freedom, more than 51,000 service members have been killed since the Vietnam War. The killed-in-action numbers don't take into account the numerous suicides pegged to post traumatic stress disorder - a recent New York Times report put the number at 5,000 each year.
I think the best thing a person can say to a gold star family member is, "I care," or, "I am sorry for your loss." I've met many other Gold Star moms since my journey began, and the one thing that rubs all of us the wrong way is when someone says, "Thank you," or "Thank you for your child's sacrifice."
Gold Star families know that people who say this mean well. No one intends to injure or annoy, so most of us choose to smile and thank the person while thinking something like, "Why thank us? We did not willingly give our children to anyone, and our sons and daughters did not willingly give their lives, either."
They knew it could happen, of course. But they didn't want it or expect it. They all planned futures, and we, their families, looked forward to seeing their lives unfold. So don't thank us for giving up something we didn't want to give up.
This Monday, Memorial Day, my husband and I will host our 4th Annual Marine LCpl Benjamin Whetstone Schmidt Memorial Celebration and bash. We'll have the family and as many friends as we can show up and have a great day celebrating the life of our son - margaritas, fajitas, we go all out and Benjamin would love it! And while we don't mind at all if you kick it up on this federal holiday with your own family and friends, I hope everyone spends at least a few seconds thinking about all the mothers and fathers who have gotten that horrible knock at the door, and the families and friends who dearly miss their fallen military friends. It's a journey no one wants, and one that too many people go on.
Please feel free to honor and remember Benjamin on his memorial Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/groups/194509257349476/