‘Our Grief is Different’: Fallen Veterans Honored, Celebrated by Families at Operation Love Letters

Loss and healing were both themes of a ceremony Saturday to honor the lives of fallen veterans.

The U.S. Army Reserve Family Programs' Survivor Outreach Services hosted the second annual Operation Love Letters at Moffett Field in San Jose.

The event was a chance for the parents and relatives of soldiers who lost their lives in combat to share stories and support, and write letters celebrating their loved ones.

"Every piece of support and love from our communities, our friends, our families means the most to us," Dianne Layfield said. "We probably couldn't make it through our tragic devastation without them."

Layfield is a member of the American Gold Star Mothers Inc., an organization of mothers who "have lost a son or daughter in the service of our country," according to its website. Her son Travis enlisted in the Marines right out of high school, but did not make it home. "I'm very proud of my son," she said.

The Fremont resident has now made it her mission to go to every veteran's funeral she can to connect with other members of a community that she said no one ever wants to be a part of.

"Our grief is different than anyone else's," said Layfield, who brought brownies, her child's favorite snack, to Sunday's gathering.

Beverly Balsley agreed.

"The pain is every day even though it's been nine years," she said.

Being with other people who have experienced the same loss as her has not only helped Balsley cope but also given her the "wonderful" opportunity to stand with them as they rebuild their lives, she said.

"It helps that our children aren't forgotten -- that they'll be remembered and that means a lot to me," she said.

Operation Love Letters began in Orlando, Florida four years ago and has since expanded to other locations throughout the country.

"We are not mourning," Major General Daniel Helix told the half-filled room. "We are celebrating and we are so grateful."

Helix, who prefers to think about PTSD as an "injury" as opposed to a "disorder," recalled talking to the Vacaville mother of a veteran who leaped off the Golden Gate Bridge and plummeted to his death.

The man had been deployed five times as part of the United States Army Special Forces, but combat had compromised his mental health. The soldier's leaders refused to redeploy him, but he committed suicide the day his unit left the United States without him, Helix said.

"[His mother] says, 'Do you still think my son is a veteran?'" he said. "And I said, "Oh my goodness. We think of your son as [Killed in Action] because the wound, the mortal wound that took your son, happened before the actual act occurred."

Helix readily agreed that the loss experienced by parents whose children were killed in combat is "terrible and life-changing." But their sacrifices led to the "freedom of precious human beings," he said.

He also urged Operation Love Letters' attendees to connect with others and make efforts to try and move on. Most importantly, he reminded them to prioritize their "self-care."

"You're demonstrating to the one that you lost, demonstrating to yourself that life will go on and the memories will be preserved and cherished and the legacies will be honored," Helix said. "Those of us who remain in service, we see you as heroes."

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