By Lesley Atkinson, Fort Lee Public Affairs
FORT LEE, Va. –
Gold Star Family members and installation leaders and supporters gathered at the Memorial Garden here May 25 to participate in the 7th annual Butterfly Release to remember fallen service members.
The survivors wrapped around the garden perimeter and some stood in front of their pictured hero. The diverse group included children, spouses, parents and grandparents. The loved ones lost included Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Marines. The ceremony’s proximity to the nation’s Memorial Day observance added to the poignancy of the occasion.
Ceremony hosts Angela Bellamy, Army Community Service survivor outreach coordinator, and Stephanie Parker, ACS director, opened the event with words of thanks for those attending. Parker then shared the following message with the survivors.
“Fort Lee put this garden here seven years ago with the vision of appropriately honoring fallen loved ones,” she said. “Today, you are welcome to water these flowers with your tears and fill your hearts with hugs. We all stand with you to honor the ones who have fallen; the ones we will always remember.”
Parker introduced guest speaker Joann Duncan. Categorizing her survivor story as “different than most,” she noted she is not a Gold Star mother or wife but an older sister of a fallen hero. Her mother died when she was three years old and her brother was a baby. They were raised by grandparents, however, Duncan felt it was her responsibility to look after her sibling.
Duncan then recalled the devastating day when she found he had been killed in action in 1969. He was a Marine and died while trying to retrieve wounded comrades during an ambush in Vietnam. The only way she could cope, she said, was to lock it away and avoid speaking about her brother.
“Things were different back then … there was no support from the community. The Marines didn’t have a survivor outreach program. You were left on your own with your family and a few good friends,” Duncan said. “Well, here I am 48 years later, and I can’t believe I am standing here telling you about my brother. Until about 12 years ago, I couldn’t publicly acknowledge I lost him. But thanks to the Marines, Angela Bellamy and the other Gold Star Family members I have come to know and love, I can now tell you my story.”
The takeaway from her message, Duncan emphasized, is the importance of remembering and paying respect to the sacrifice of fallen service members. Seven years ago, she began creating tribute banners – 67 thus far – that put faces to the names of those killed while serving their nation. Her creations have been seen at Fort Lee’s annual Run for the Fallen observance and other memorial parades and ceremonies in the local area. She said her goal is to create banners for all 208 fallen heroes from Virginia.
“It’s time to speak up about the sacrifices made in places like Vietnam,” Duncan also asserted. “I deprived my family of knowing about Franklin partly because of the time his death happened. Back then, nobody talked about the war. During Vietnam, you couldn’t be out in the community like this and honor your loss because you would be ridiculed and spit on. I was told back then, he shouldn’t have gone over there and he got what he deserved. What a terrible thing to say about someone in military; someone who was doing what he always wanted to do.”
Without directly saying it, Duncan spoke volumes about the impetus and importance of the military’s survivor outreach programs that ensure the families of the fallen know their loved ones will always hold a place of honor in the eyes of the nation. The gathered crowd wore that understanding on their faces as they held and hugged each other while the envelopes containing butterflies were handed to them. The release itself brought smiles and appreciative reactions as the winged messengers of hope perched on fingers or fluttered into the distance.
Delores Simmons, the mother of fallen 82nd Airborne Division paratrooper Staff Sgt. Dannie Simmons Jr., expressed appreciation for the uplifting moment. Recalling the “horrible experience” of dealing with her son’s death, she said the support services at Fort Lee have given her strength and the Butterfly Release is a way to connect with her son.
“Dannie Jr. was a dedicated Soldier,” she observed, “and I know he is looking down today saying, ‘thank you mom for supporting me.’”
Fort Lee Soldiers, families and civilian employees began a century of support to the nation in 1917 when Camp Lee was established to train the 80th Division for service during WWI. Today, Fort Lee is the Army’s Home of Sustainment and supports the training, education and development of adaptive Army professionals in fields such as transportation, supply, culinary arts and equipment repair and maintenance. Major organizations on the installation include the Defense Commissary Agency, Defense Contract Management Agency, Combined Arms Support Command, the Army Logistics University, U.S. Army Ordnance School, U.S. Army Quartermaster School and U.S. Army Transportation School. Fort Lee supports nearly 86,000 Soldiers, retirees, veterans, family members and civilian employees and boasts an economic impact of about $2.4 billion per year.