The Farias Family (Gold Star)

John Felix Farias sat in the MEPs (Military Entrance Processing) room at Ft. Sam Houston in San Antonio, Texas.  His path into the Marine Corps had just begun at 18 years old.  Ironically, the room he was sitting in would one day be named in honor of his intrepid sacrifice.  Less than two years later he would be killed in action after meeting a violent end in a heavy engagement with the Taliban on a rooftop in Sangin.  That's the unfortunate nature of warfare and what makes the choice to join one of unparalleled courage and sacrifice.  There was a powerful moment a few days before John's death where he sent a video blog home to his parents.  It's important to watch this video because it will better help you understand John and the weighty significance of loss.  Imagine watching this as a parent of your only son. 

His mom and dad, Penny and Felix, are two of the most gracious human beings you will ever meet and that's what makes this blog that much more arduous to write.  There is no redemption on this earth for John's death.  His parents will always live with that incredibly harsh reality.  John will never be married, never have kids, never see another birthday and that's the truth of the matter.  To be honest, it was hard even thanking them for his sacrifice.  How do you thank parents who've lost their only son to such a harsh forfeiture of life?  There is no possible way to show enough reverence.  Yet, there is light to be found even from the most crushing darkness.  The John Felix Farias Memorial Scholarship Fund has created opportunities where there weren't and a true connection to the weight of sacrifice in death.  There are young men and women entering the work force now who know that the opportunity was extended to them because of someone their age stepping up and placing their own personal safety as the lowest of priorities, in the process of protecting the greatest nation on earth. 

It's vital that these stories are brought into the light.  We see examples of young war-fighters losing their lives in parts of the world we barely even knew existed, but we don't see the extension of that loss.  We don't see the stinging tears of the mother, father, brother, and sisters.  We don't witness the nights where sleep is a luxury as those painful memories strike with unforgiving force.  We aren't the ones that receive that crippling phone call that changes life forever as the realization hits that your only son isn't coming home.  The reality is, most of us just see the picture on the late night news of a young warrior gone too soon... and that's it.  Most of us probably nod our head in reverence and sigh as the harsh reality of war comes to light.  Then, we turn off our TV, maybe take a minute on social media to acknowledge their sacrifice, head to bed, and wakeup in the morning barely remembering their name.  And part of that is life. We can't stop our own lives because others have been lost, and our nation's war-fighters certainly wouldn't want that.  However, greater respect can be shown by not only showing reverence for that warrior's legacy but the families of those lost in combat.              

    

What do you remember about John's childhood?

PF (Penny Farias): John was always smiling.  He grew up playing sports.  He broke his nose playing basketball four times (laughs).  He played football but we didn't let him start playing until 7th grade.  He didn't play in any of the Pee Wee leagues.  He played soccer as well and took karate until he got his black belt.  He won some championships and I still have all those trophies upstairs.  He had a lot of friends and like everyone else he had some kids that tried to bully him when he was young.  He got really good grades and I never really remember him studying (laughs).  He had a lot of girlfriends and he just generally got along really well with girls.  He just made friends really easily. 

FF (Felix Farias): He was just actively friendly to everyone.  He loved the river so he became a lifeguard at the Comal River.  He loved that job because he said he got to meet a lot of girls (laughs). 

PF:  He was a boy scout too.  The boy scouts were having a class on diving and I was a diver myself a long time ago.  I helped the class with that and we all went out to Canyon Lake.   I remember it raining and it was so cold.  I think the class was in February.  It was not a good time to have a class but John still loved it.  He eventually made it all the way to Eagle Scout.  When he went into the Marine Corps he went in as a Private First Class because of his experience as an Eagle Scout.  He had a lot of fun in the scouts and I remember him being a big practical joker.  He and two other boys got in big trouble for a practical joke one time.  I remember having to go get him from the camp because he got kicked out of the camp for that (laughs).  We have lots of pictures of those times as a scout.  He really liked that.  I made sure that he made it to Eagle Scout because I knew that would really be important to him later in life. 

When he played football at Canyon we'd travel to all of his road games in Kerrville or Corpus or wherever the team went.  He was a powerlifter as well.  I remember his smile more than anything else and I remember that laugh.  One of the times when he called from Afghanistan, he was so proud of his smile that he asked to make sure we packed his mouthguard so he could keep his teeth straight while he was in combat (laughs).  What a thing to ask for while you're in Afghanistan.  I remember that he was also very compassionate.  He'd get really upset when he felt people were being mistreated.  I remember he went through a breakup when he was young and he just went to pieces.  He was so upset.  That was his first girlfriend and he was madly in love with her (laughs).  

Do you remember why he joined the Marine Corps?  

PF: 9/11 is why John joined.  As a kid he was also in the Junior Marines and we'd take him out to Austin to Camp Mabry.  You'll see in some of the pictures I show you upstairs when he was in the boy scouts, he has a Young Marines shirt on in some of those pictures.  He always wanted to be a Marine.  It was really funny because we actually didn't know he'd joined the Marine Corps.  I got home on a Friday and he said, "Mom, let's go somewhere."  We got in the car and I followed his directions.  That led me to the Marine recruitment center.  That's how I found out.  He'd already joined through the school.  He was 18 so he could do it on his own of course.  

How did you feel about that as a mother?

PF: I was okay with him joining the Marines.  The only thing I tried to get him to change was his MOS.  I didn't want him to be infantry and 0311 is what John wanted to be.  He always wanted to be a firefighter growing up as well, so I thought maybe the Marine Corps had a firefighting MOS (laughs).  I said to him, "Why do you want to be on the front lines?"  He said to me, "You're not a true Marine if you're not infantry."  He wanted to go get the Taliban.  Felix didn't take it as well as I did. 

FF: He was our only son and I knew that with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that he'd be going to the front of the lines with the Marines.  That's what infantry does.  He wanted to go, though.  I gave him my blessing and just hoped for the best.   

PF: You have to let them do what they want to do at a certain age.  No mother wants their son to be infantry I don't think, but I wasn't super upset because I knew it's what he wanted to do.  He was happiest doing that.  That's what I try to think about when people ask me how I'm taking his death.  I know that he was doing what he wanted to do.  

What was it like being the mother of a Marine?  

PF: It was weird not being able to talk to him when he went to bootcamp.  He was gone for about twelve weeks or something like that.  I only got to talk to him at the end of it.  I worried about him and just hoped he was staying out of trouble (laughs).  I don't know how the Army is but those Marine Drill Instructors are incredibly tough on them.  We got to see that firsthand at his graduation.  We knew he was being trained well.  Since he was based out of Camp Pendleton we got to visit him a couple times when he was with his unit.  He called home a lot.  I never really had to worry about him once he got to his unit.  

He was having fun and he really enjoyed being a Marine.  He worked hard too.  When he graduated from bootcamp he was promoted to Lance Corporal.  He got in a little trouble and was demoted.  He got his rank back though as soon as they could possibly give it to him.  John was resilient.  He knew he'd messed up and he did everything to make it right from that point forward.  He graduated second in his class during bootcamp and was a team leader at SOI (School of Infantry).  He was an expert rifleman as well.  He wanted to go MARSOC and I think he would've gone that way if he'd lived. 

FF: John was so good at facing challenges.  He loved that.  He loved a good challenge and he never backed down from one.  

PF: When he was killed, he was a Lance Corporal but had he not gotten in trouble he would've been a Corporal.  That was only after about a year and a half.  He didn't even make it two years in the Marine Corps before he was killed.  He did really well for the short time he was in.  We thought he should receive the Bronze Star and he was actually put in for it, but the Marine Corps is very stringent when it comes to awards.  The Army seems to hand those out a little more easily but not the Marines.  We felt like he deserved it for his actions on that day.  He received the commendation right below it.  

What were you thinking when he decided to join?  Did you feel nervous about it?

PF: I was nervous when he joined because I didn't want him going to Afghanistan.  Because he was at Camp Pendleton with the 5th Marines, his deployment was like two months after getting out of SOI.  He finished SOI in February and was gone in March.  His buddy who was at 29 Palms didn't get deployed for almost two years after SOI.  We knew that his whole unit wanted to go to Afghanistan.  He'd call us and you'd hear them in the background yelling and laughing.  They were partying.  You could hear them in the back and they were just so thrilled (laughs).  We went and picked up his truck and drove it back here.  They let him come back right before his deployment.  One of his brothers had a going away party for him.  You just hope that everything goes well when they go over there.    

Can you tell people what it's like being a mother whose son is overseas?

PF: I was worried all the time when he was over there.  When he first would call us they were just getting their patrol base built up.  They were moving around a bit but mostly just clearing areas and building their base.  Then I remember one of his last calls wasn't a very good call.  When they first got to Afghanistan there wasn't too much activity.  From the end of March to June things started to pick up.  I remember that last call and him saying, "It's gotten really bad.  The Taliban is giving us a really hard time.  It's bad enough that I'm using all of my training and then some."  They'd lost their automatic weapons guy who was wounded so John took that position.  He was handling a M-240B.  The battalion commander told us he'd hold it up just like a regular rifle and fire from that position.  He told us, "I don't know how John held it like that but he did."  He'd had no training on that particular weapon.  It was a Thursday that we talked to him and that was it.  That was the last time we talked to him before he was gone.      

What would you tell a parent whose son is about to go over there? 

PF: You always wait for the phone calls.  We were sending lots of packages to the guys.  You just have to try not to worry or you'll drive yourself crazy.  Things seemed to be okay but when he called me that Thursday then we knew it was harder.  My anxiety levels went up a lot after that.  Felix and I are big news watchers so you're always hearing different things.  Sometimes it's best to stay away from the news.  Before he was killed you could tell he was pretty worried.  We received a video from him and we received that just before he was killed.  It was within days.

FF: That video was hard for me to watch.  It was a really sad video for me to watch.  He looked so sad to me and the way he talked it seemed like he knew he wasn't coming back.  That made it really hard.    

PF: Some of his buddies told us that he didn't think he was going to come home.  Another weird thing was that I know you guys all write a letter in case you're killed.  Well that letter isn't supposed to come to the family unless something happens of course.  Ours was mailed to us before he was killed.  I just remember thinking, "What the heck is this?"  We were wondering why we received that letter.  There was supposed to be something on it that said not to open it.  Well that wasn't on there so we opened it.    

 

What do you remember about the time leading up to John's death?

PF: The day before John was killed we were both working in Austin.  On my lunch hour I was talking to one of John's staff sergeants who was actually at Bethesda Hospital.  He was visiting with the wounded Marines.  He was talking to me on the phone and we were having a pretty general conversation.  We started talking about the wounded guys.  He mentioned some of the parents being there.  I asked him about the protocol for when one of the Marines would die.  He said to me, "You really want to know about this?"  I said, "Well yeah, tell me."  I sure would've never thought John would die the next day.  Felix and I were in a van pool to Austin where we worked.  I got this call from the 4th Recon Marines based in San Antonio.  They asked where I was and I said, "I'm at work."  I was thinking, "Hmmm, this is weird." 

I said, "Where are you guys?"  I was remembering the protocol that the staff sergeant had told me.  I dropped the phone and screamed.  People came running.  One of my coworkers ran over to me to console me.  Her son was with the 5th Marine Division as well.  She was sitting across from me and she grabbed me.  I remember when we got back to the house two Marines were sitting in front of our house.  They took me into a room with supervisors and some other people.  I had to call Felix and they didn't want me to tell him.  Like me, he guessed what happened.  My only son was gone.  John was on a rooftop and he was fighting hard against the enemy when he died.  A bullet struck him in the upper chest and it went down through him.  He didn't live for very long after that.  He died quickly.      

FF: I was in my work's main office celebrating birthdays.  When she called me I knew immediately what happened.  I was in the Army so I knew the protocol for these kind of things.  I knew the worst thing had happened.  I'll never forget that moment.  That was the hardest day.  It was the worst of my life.  

What do you remember about the days after that?

PF: We called our daughter after John died and she came down as quickly as possible.  She lives in north Fort Worth.  I moved the computer down to the dining table.  There were cars covering the neighborhood of our family.  You couldn't move around inside our house there were so many people.  There were news crews outside too.  People were there to support us and brought us food and whatever we needed.  The two young men that were CACOs (Casualty Assistance Calls Officer) were just absolutely incredible young men and we are still friends.  They were there for us every step of the way.  Ryan Miller is one of them who we are still really close to.  They were both standing at the front of the house waiting for us when John was first killed.  I don't remember the initial moments after that.  It was all just too shocking and horrible.  I just remember making calls to family later that day.  Felix has a huge, huge family so they all came out.  I don't have any family here in South Texas but all of his family came out.  My daughter and I went to Dover Air Force Base to receive the body.  There was an Army soldier who came off the same aircraft and his wife and family was there with us as well.  We stayed with them at the Fischer House.  He's buried right next to John at Ft. Sam Houston.  He'd stepped on an IED.  There were two other Marines on that flight as well from the 5th.  They'd both been killed in action as well.  We let the press photograph his body coming out of the plane in the transfer box.  A lot of people don't let the press document that part but we did.  We stayed out there for a couple days.  Felix came out here.

FF: I went out to Dover Air Force Base to accompany my son's body back to New Braunfels.  

PF: Usually the CACO goes with the family to accompany them but John's staff sergeant wanted to go instead.  He was the guy who'd told me about proper procedures the day before John died.  He felt so bad about all that.  He assisted Felix on the way back home.  They wanted to take his body back to Lackland but I asked them about another airstrip closer to our home.  I brought up Randolph Air Force Base which was much closer but I also knew of an airstrip in New Braunfels just down the road.  The problem is that the airstrip has to be a certain length.  The planes that bring the body in is a Kalitta Air Charters.  Connie Kalitta was a race car driver and I actually used to watch him race which was kind of ironic.  He owns a bunch of airplanes that are specifically designed to bring the bodies home. 

FF: They brought his body into the airport that's just about a mile from the house.  It's so close you can almost see it from our house.  It worked out really well for us.  

PF: The Patriot Guard lined the streets along with thousands of others.  It was the most incredible sight I've ever seen in my life.  

FF:  The airport is about 8 miles away from the funeral home.  There were people lining the streets all the way from airport to funeral home.  I can't imagine how many there were.  

PF: It was probably the largest funeral I've ever seen here.  It was absolutely amazing.  Felix's brother is a Navy SEAL and his two sons are as well.  They accompanied his body along with the Marines and Patriot Guard.  They were the ones that told me about the Coletta planes that could bring John's body back that close to our home.  Coletta does that for free for all service members.  He's a real patriot.  When we got into the cars from the funeral home we made a right onto 1102 out here, Comal ISD had the streets lined with their trucks.  All of the people were standing out there with the trucks.  That's John's school district.  I can't explain that feeling.  The funeral was over by the time everyone got to the ceremony.  That's how packed it was.  There were people lining the highways, firetrucks holding our flag over the overpass, and crowds everywhere.  It stunned me.  I don't think we've ever seen anything like that before.  San Antonio and the New Braunfels community was amazing.  When I saw the flag hanging from those firetrucks it really hit me hard.  

FF: When we had the viewing it was for the family for an hour.  We opened the viewing up to everyone else though because we'd already seen John's body.  They started the viewing at 2:30 pm and there were people coming to see him until the funeral home closed at 9 pm.  Everyone was offering their condolences.  It was nonstop.  

PF: I didn't sit down one time.  There were so many people that I couldn't sit down.  I didn't know most of them.  

FF: My brother who was a Navy SEAL and his sons kept people from streaming in all at a time.  They just let in a few at a time to offer their condolences.  It was an all day kind of thing.  It was amazing.  

What do you remember about your feelings after?

PF: There was another Marine that was supposed to be there that day.  Supposedly he was sick, so John went in his place that day.  John ended up being killed.  When we found that out we were pretty upset.  There have been some things said about whether or not that Marine was actually sick.  It's very upsetting to me but that Marine had a wife and kids.  We don't blame him.  If you believe in God you know that there was a reason everything happened the way it did.  John was single and this guy had a family.  I think that God probably wanted him there instead of this young man.  That helps me.  The Marines that were a part of the unit know what really happened that day.  They don't talk to this young man anymore.  We still talk to him though and we don't hold things against him.  I don't know that he'd be around if we stopped talking to him.  He already blames himself and suffers from pretty heavy depression.  We want him to lead a good life.    

How has the Marine community supported you since John's death?

PF: Speaking for myself, the Marines have made it much easier on us since John died.  We are pretty close with all of his squad mates.  We keep in close contact with them, we go see them, we go to their weddings.  The weddings are super hard because I know my son will never have a wedding.  It's hard when I see them having kids too.  I'm happy for them but sad because I know my John will never have children.  These guys are truly amazing though.  They come down for our golf tournament we host every year.  

FF: We formed a foundation for scholarships.  The golf tournament is what brings in a lot of the money for these scholarships.  The community has really supported that golf tournament.  It's awesome.

PF: If you look at my friends on Facebook, they're all John's friends.  They're his friends.  They're Marines and families of Marines.  I probably don't even know half of them.  They loved John.  

A "thank you" note from a recent graduate of Texas A&M.  The student received the John Felix Farias Scholarship which financially aided him in reaching graduation day.  

What are you doing in memorial of John now and what are you looking to do in the future?

PF:  Gruene Harley Davidson started a motorcycle ride in the memory of John on May 24, 2014 and then we changed it to become Semper Fi Fest in May 2015 and it now honors the memory of two other Marines who were killed as well.  We are trying to open it up to everyone.  Gruene Harley Davidson out here puts it on for us.  

What advice would you give to new Gold Star mothers?

PF: John's best friend, Thomas Spitzer, who joined with him on the buddy system was killed three days earlier than John and three years after him.  He was killed 6/25/14 in the same place John was killed, Sangin, Afghanistan.  I try to do as much for his mother as I possibly can.  

FF: He was a good friend to John and he was killed three years after him.  Every time we would come visit John at Camp Pendleton, he'd drive the 2-3 hours from 29 Palms to see all of us.  We'd all spend time together.  That was really special.

PF: Thomas was a wonderful kid.  John and him did everything together.  They grew up together, played football together, power-lifted together.  Helping his mother in her time of grieving has helped me a little.  She thinks I'm so strong but I'm really not.  I try to be so strong in front of people but these days I cry a whole lot more than I used to.  It's gotten harder in recent years and not easier.  Things seem to get to me more easily.  I don't know what the difference is but things have gotten worse for me.  One of the other Gold Star mothers told me that things actually get worse as time passes.  It's gotten harder.  I never stop thinking about him.  All his pictures are on my phone and I talk to his buddies all the time.  I deal with the pain every day.         

What's been the most therapeutic thing for you since John died?

PF: John's Marine buddies have been the best thing for me since he died.  They've helped heal me the most.  One of his buddies, Adam, who's MARSOC just left for some area I don't think I can mention.  This guy comes and spends every Memorial Day with us.  He comes for the entire weekend on his own time.  He comes to Semper Fi Fest as well.  I worry about his friends that are in all the time.  John's other friend, Nate, who you've seen in some of the pictures with Nate has a service dog.  Nate named that dog Johnny after John because that's what the other Marines called him.  Nate brought Johnny to John's graveside and that's the picture you see in our living room.  Nate lives in Maine now but Johnny helps him tremendously with his PTSD.  Operation Canine trained him out here in New Braunfels.  I remember when Nate brought Johnny to John's graveside.  He turned and faced the headstone like he knew John.  It was amazing.         

What do you remember about John's childhood?

FF: I remember him starting T-ball when he was five years old.  We used to go watch him all the time.  I remember those kids at that age were so funny.  John would be playing left field but he'd be sitting on the ground in left field playing in the dirt (laughs).  He wasn't paying attention at all.  We have all that on video still.  When he started 7th grade, I still remember going to his scrimmage at New Braunfels Canyon.  The first time he carried the ball he went 63 yards untouched.  He was as fast as lightning.  That was such a surprise to me because I didn't realize he was that good.  I'll never forget that.  He also played city league basketball when he was younger as well.  He loved football and he loved contact.  That's why he played defensive end.  He loved to hit.  He also loved the water and loved swimming.  He became a lifeguard at the Comal River in high school.  I remember how much he loved going to South Padre Island when he was young.  He'd always bring some friends of his because he was the only son.  We had some awesome experiences.  

What do you remember about his character?

FF: As a kid, he was always so good to his friends.  He got along with everyone really well.  He was such a happy kid.  We tried to make him as happy as we could... You know why I keep looking up to the second floor right now?  John used to always have me throw him a bottle of water from down here.  He was being lazy and didn't want to come down the stairs (laughs).  I miss that.  I can still see him standing there now.  

What was it like for you to be the father of the Marine?

FF: To me, the Marines are the best in the military except for the Special Operations guys.  I have a younger brother who was a Navy SEAL and his sons are SEALs as well.  I was so proud of my son being a Marine.  I still remember how awesome his graduation was.  He was so proud to be a Marine.  

What do you remember about him deploying?

FF: I remember when I found out he was going to deploy.  Back then, I read the Bible on a daily basis.  I started reading it just to give me strength.  I prayed that he stayed safe.  Psalm 91 was the one that I like a lot about protection.  I was at my work celebrating birthdays in the office when Penny called me.  After that, I just kept saying, "No, no, no!"  The people in my workplace asked what was wrong.  They grabbed me and started praying for me and Penny.  It's tough because I remember hugging him as a little boy.  I always hugged John.  I still remember those things and it makes it worse now.  I know that I'll never have the privilege of hugging my only son again.  Even when he went to high school I hugged him every day and I'd tell him how much I loved him.  He'd say to me, "I love you too dad."  It's been hard.  I miss him every single day.   

What do you remember about the days following?

FF: After his burial, I was crying out on the inside.  I wanted to show strength at the funeral home.  After that, I would get in my pickup truck and take the back roads out here.  I would just let it all out on those drives.  I had to just let everything out.  Those tears are necessary because sometimes I just can't hold it in anymore.  When I miss him, I go visit him at Ft. Sam.  We take some chairs with us and sit there.  It makes us feel better knowing he's in heaven.  My life has never been the same since he was killed though.  My wife wants me to eat but I haven't had an appetite since he died.  Food doesn't really seem very important.  Nothing really seems as important anymore.  

How much did you lean on Penny after John's death?

FF: We talked about how we could sustain a positive attitude.  It's been very hard for both of us but we help each other out through this time.  That makes it easier for sure but it doesn't change the fact that it's still terribly tough every single day.  

What would you tell fathers that are faced with your burden?

FF: My advice to fathers facing my kind of loss is to build your spiritual life.  You're going to need strength from somewhere else because your strength alone won't be enough.  That way you can achieve some type of peace and understanding.  

What were you most proud of with your son?

FF: There are a couple of things I'm proud of.  I'm super proud that my son made it to Eagle Scout.  I remember he wanted to quit his last year before he became on but mama is very pushy (laughs).  She got him to finish and I'm proud that he did it.  The other thing is that he was a Marine.  I know that he loved being in the Marine Corps.   

A portrait of John Farias with his best friend, Thomas Spitzer.  Spitzer was killed in combat three years after John passed, also in Sangin, Afghanistan.  

What's helped you the most since John passed?

FF: The most therapeutic thing for me has been staying in church.  Having his friends come over and visit makes it like a giant family.  That keeps us going.  We keep in touch with a lot of John's old friends that that's so helpful.   

"What A Marine."  The title on the New Braunfels Herald Zeitung incites chills.  I think it's important to fervently honor the service and sacrifices of those who've paid the greatest price.  But, I see it a little differently now that I started this project.  I think the most important part of paying respects, is honoring the human and individual.  John was a Marine and a magnificent one at that but he was also a son and a brother.  His parents will always remember John the five year old t-baller, sitting in the outfield, playing in the dirt.  They will remember those Friday night lights washing over the green grass as John tenaciously rushed the passer as the Cougar Stadium crowd roared. 

They will remember John the Eagle Scout.  They will remember John the lifeguard working on the Comal River under that Texas summer sun.  They will remember John the war-fighter whose ascendance into manhood happened right before their eyes on video a few weeks before he tragically passed.  Last but certainly not least, they will remember their son, gone far too soon and his harrowing sacrifice that helped continue to pave the way for our greatest liberties.  Let's honor our warrior's sacrifice, remember them, revere and cherish the families who will never see that warrior again.             

The Chick Family (White Star)

Staff Sergeant Carter Chick was one of the first veterans I covered for The Veterans Project when I started the blog roughly four years ago throughout the duration of my Master's Degree.  At the time, I barely knew what I was doing and I had almost no technical knowledge as a photographer.  What I did have was a passion for my brothers and the highest level of esteem for a man who taught me what leadership truly was.  Carter was one of my best friends from my unit but he was also my greatest mentor in a combat zone.  He was tough but he was equally fair.  I remember that a positive praise from SSG Chick meant the world to me.  I knew his family before I ever met them.  He spoke about them non-stop on our deployment to Iraq and I remember particularly how proud he was of his son Chad's budding baseball career.  As a college baseball player myself, Carter was constantly asking for advice that could assist Chad in his growth.  Things changed when we got home as they always do after deployments.  I got out of the Army and went back to school to finish my academic and baseball career.  Carter stayed in an active duty role at Ft. Bliss.  We stayed in touch as his time in the Army came to a close and he prepared to start his life as a civilian.  I remember those days being particularly painful for him.  We often had late night conversations that revolved around him having no idea what he was going to do with the rest of his life.

Carter and I were very different in that way.  I thrived as a civilian whereas he took off the uniform and that was all he knew.  It had been the foundation of his existence for the better part of 20 years.  He felt exposed without that armor and I saw it when I spent time with him.  When I covered him for the project, I remember one of the most confident men in the world suddenly looking like a shell of himself.  Most of his adult life was spent dedicated to the Marine Corps and the Army.  Instantaneously, that was all gone.  He wrestled tremendously with that and I remember his struggles becoming more and more inimical.  I won't get into the particulars of our conversations but I could tell he felt like his life was lacking purpose.  Those discussions became increasingly dark towards the end.  To tell you the truth, they still haunt me in many ways.  Then, one day, he was gone.  I got the call and I remember feeling as though I was having some bizarre, gruesome out of body experience where I could visualize my own sense of shock.  He'd taken his own life and that was it.  No more Carter Chick.  No more mentor.  No more late night conversations.  No more ragging on each other about our sports allegiances.  No more laughing 'til I cried over his stories of his young Marine days.  No more comfort from a man that believed in me more than almost anyone else.  

I didn't cry right away.  Those tears came later as I began to feel the absence and anger associated with some form of resentment.  My first thoughts were directly diverted to his family.  What would his wife Nikki do?  How did she tell Colt and Chad, their two sons?  What would life look like for them from this point forward?  Then, for the first time, I experienced some form of bitterness.  I was angry with him.  I couldn't believe he'd done this to a family that he loved so much.  When the tears first came, they were searing droplets, extensions of both dejection and exasperation.  As time passed, I thought a lot about his family and wondered what their journey forward would entail.  The Veterans Project began to grow as a platform, and much of that success was attributed to the burning passion Carter established in my heart.  His death inaugurated a fire in my heart that's hard to explain.  

He was and still is, my greatest drive to light on this path of capturing legacies.  But... what about his family?  Where would their story take them?  It certainly didn't end at his passing.  Over the past two years, I've had an incessant guilt riddling my conscience.  It was easier to push into the work of The Veterans Project, head down, blinders on, then to think about those left behind.  The truth is, I knew what I had to do but I didn't know how to embark on such a strenuous excursion.  After all, I didn't know what it was like to get that call.  I didn't know what it felt like to know your dad, husband, son, mother, wife, daughter wasn't coming home.  Then again, that's the power of the individual experience.   I didn't really know what it was like to be my veterans either.  I simply had experiences that were similar to their's, but that experience didn't exactly parallel because truly, no experience can.  With that in mind, I decided to tackle this work fully realizing the cataclysmic weight of these stories.  There is no way to truly describe the burden a family faces in the path of loss.  So, the goal of this particular work is to let the caregivers tell the story themselves.  Nothing in this introduction can possibly illuminate the dark spaces like the narrative of those who've lived it.  Here's the Chick Family.       

Nikki Chick  (Carter's wife)

What do you remember about your husband when you first met?  What drew you to him?  

Nikki: I met my husband (SSG Carter Chick) on June 9, 2003, at Cowboys Redriver.  It was "Urban Cowboy" night.  I am not sure what exactly drew me to Carter, but it had something to do with his eyes.  He asked me to dance and our first dance was to Johnny Lee's "Looking for love in all the wrong places."  Looking back, that was funny because we were in a bar.  At the end of the night, he told me he was going to marry me and I told him he was crazy (laughs).

What was the wedding day like?  

Nikki: Our wedding day was a blur.  We were married a year to the day that we met, June 9, 2004.  We got married at the Alexandra Mansion in Garland, Texas.  It was a small but very nice ceremony with just our family and closest friends.  I do remember that he was late to the wedding (laughs).  The boys in the wedding party played golf in the morning and they weren't paying attention to the time.

Can you describe Carter Chick from your perspective of him as his wife?  

Nikki: Carter loved his family.  The boys and I were everything to him.  He loved his boys so much.  He was very proud of them.  He wanted them both to be great men, better than he was.  He wanted them to be able to do anything and everything that they wanted to.  He was not the typical romantic man, but he showed his love every day through the little things that he did.  He loved his time in the military.  It was very important to him.

Picture: Nikki stands next to the bathroom door where Carter left her a message before his last deployment to Iraq.  

Can you talk about the day that Carter took his own life?  

Nikki: A lot of the day my husband passed is a blur or maybe I blocked it out.  When the sheriff told me, I didn't believe him.  In fact, I called his cell phone when I hung up with the sheriff.  It hit when the sheriff answered Carter's phone.  I called my parents first and then I called some family and friends.  When the family got to the house, I stopped making calls and let them handle that.  I don't remember much about the days that followed.  The first night, I remember seeing Carter in my dream.  He was very clear, standing beside my bed while I laid there and he told me he was sorry.

What do you remember about him as a soldier?  

Nikki: My husband was a very proud soldier.  He felt like any guys under him were his absolute responsibility.  He was very serious about his job and loved it.  He was my hero.

What was the hardest thing about being a military spouse?

Nikki: The time apart was the hardest thing about being a military wife.  We spent the majority of our marriage apart.  One month after we married, Carter's unit was called up to deploy to Iraq.  Not being on post was a challenge, and being 3 hours away was even worse.  We made it work because we wanted our children to be raised in one town and not moved around.  That was very important to us.  

What did you do for the kids to help them when Carter was gone?  

Nikki: While Carter was deployed I kept Chad and Colt busy with sports or planning activities with family and friends.  We'd make care packages to send to dad.  I still remember one time Colt jumping in the box and asked me to send him to daddy (laughs).  He must have been about three at the time.

Do you remember some of the toughest moments when he was gone and what specifically were they?  

Nikki: One moment that I remember being particularly hard was right after he returned to Iraq from his mid tour leave.  I got pregnant while he was on leave.  A few weeks after he returned, I found out that the baby was gone.  When I went to the doctor, they couldn't find a heartbeat.  I miscarried and had a hard time not having Carter home with me.

What was it like when your husband came home from deployments?  Could you tell any difference when he he came back?

Nikki: It was hard when he came home from deployments.  After his first deployment to Iraq, I noticed a major change in him.  He startled easily and didn't like being around others, not even extended family.  It was also hard because our oldest, Chad, and I had fallen into a routine without his help and we had to adapt to having Carter home and a part of that routine. 

What were the greatest things about your marriage?  

Nikki: The strength of our love was the greatest thing about marriage and the fact that we balanced each other out really well.  Although we liked a lot of the same things, we were very different too.  He challenged me to have more fun and I challenged him to be more romantic.

Having lived the life of a soldier’s wife what would you do differently if you could go back?  

Nikki: If I could go back I'd be more of an advocate for Carter's health and lack of care when he was waiting to be medically discharged.

How's it been in dealing with the Army and benefits since losing Carter?  

Nikki: Dealing with the Army since he passed has been extremely hard.  I'm still having problems getting them to pay and make his grave marker.  I'm not sure what the hold up is on that.  I've provided everything that they've asked for.  The insurance has been good but that's the only benefit we still receive.  His pay stopped and I was told we didn't qualify for any other benefits besides insurance.

What are some of the greatest difficulties of being in a White Star family?

Nikki: The hardest part about being a White Star Family is others not understanding.  I always worry about the boys and how they will handle the issue as they get older. 

What advice would you give to those who’ve recently lost a veteran to suicide?  

Nikki: If I could give any advice to anyone who's lost their soldier, Marine, or sailor to suicide I'd say, "Take it one day at a time."  Some days can be good days, and it's okay to have a good day.  Don't feel guilty about that.  Your veteran would want that for you.  Carter and I talked a lot about what he wanted for me if anything ever happened to him.  He wanted me to find someone else to love and take care of our boys.  He wanted me to find someone that would love me as much as he did.  Don't let others tell you the way you deal with grief is wrong or that you should deal with it a specific way.  Everyone deals with things differently.  There is no right way to handle grief.  

What’s been the most therapeutic thing for you since Carter passed on? 

Nikki: Staying busy with Colt has been the most therapeutic thing for me since Carter passed.  Chad's off on his own now so it's just me and Colt.  Getting out of the house, even when I didn't want to, makes things easier in finding our new normal.  I like to read a good book or find time to go to the spa when I can.   

Can you talk about teaching and why that’s so important to you?  How does teaching improve or affect your daily life since Carter passed away?

Nikki: I love teaching.  I love seeing children excited about something that we do in class together.  Teaching kept me busy and allowed me not to think about my husband being gone.  The staff at my school respected my space and just let me be while I was grieving.  They supported me when I needed it and let me be alone when I needed that.  I don't think I would have made it through this without several of them.  


Chad Chick (Carter's Son)

What are your favorite memories of your father? 

Chad: My best memories of my dad have to do with baseball.  Me and him could sit down and watch the Rangers game and not even speak.  Everything was perfect when we were together like that.  We'd just look at each other and know exactly what that player did wrong or right.  We were always in sync because he taught me everything about the sport.  He used to play baseball when he was young and so he took that knowledge and passed it on to me.  I remember playing catch with him.  I'd always pitch to him and he'd be my catcher.  When Colt was in practice during t ball we'd go to the field next to it and play catch, so he could watch Colt and teach me at the same time.  That was awesome.  I loved that.  I could never look at him when I pitched during a game because I was always so nervous.  I was always trying to make him proud.  I sucked when I could see him.  He'd walk down the left field foul line and my pitching would completely change.  We even experimented with it at Field of Dreams out in Mansfield.  It was about the second inning and I was really struggling.  He moved from the bleachers and walked down the foul line to another spot where I couldn't see him and all of a sudden I was striking everyone out (laughs).

Was it tough having your dad gone all the time on deployments?

Chad: The toughest part about my dad being gone was not having him there to watch my baseball games.  That was our thing.  Him watching me play baseball and watching baseball with him was the best thing in the world.  I understood that he had to miss birthdays and Christmas and other holidays like that.  That's part of being a soldier.  It just hurt not having him there to do our thing together, which was always baseball.  I was never scared for my dad because I always prayed.  I knew that he was in God's hands and I always knew that if something did happen it was meant to happen.  I could play it back in my head any which way but that wouldn't change my dad being gone.  His training was great and he was an incredible leader so I knew those things could keep him safe or give him a better chance of living.  I remember his first deployment and being a little scared because I was five or six.  Still, I knew he was going to work and that was what he loved.  He loved being a Marine and soldier.    

Was it hard watching other kids with their dads when your dad wasn't there?  

Chad: Sometimes it was hard watching the other kids with their dads there while mine wasn't.  But, I always told myself, "My dad is better than their dad (laughs)."  I always thought, "My dad is defending our freedom while your dad is sitting at a desk or selling cars.  My dad is way more of a badass than your dad (laughs)."  I remember thinking that when I'd get sad.  

What do you remember about the day that you found out about your dad?  

Chad: I remember my aunt waking me up.  I thought it was weird because she lives in McKinney which isn't close to Royse City at all.  I remember thinking, "That's weird."  I remember walking into the living room and I saw everyone was there.  Our whole family was there so I knew something was wrong.  My first thought was, "Who died?"  The last time we'd gathered like that, my grandma had passed away.  I knew something was wrong and I could tell mom had been crying.  She didn't come out and say it was suicide right way.  She told me that my dad was out with his friend Jeff hunting and one of them had tripped and the gun went off.  I knew that wasn't the true story right away.  

My dad had phenomenal trigger discipline and I knew he wouldn't make that mistake.  I started to put the pieces together and I found out from research that one of his guys had died on that same day years before in Iraq.  They were best friends over there and my dad blamed himself in a lot of ways for his death.  It wasn't my dad's fault but he blamed himself.  When it hit me, I walked out to the backyard and started to cry.  I sat on the deck for about an hour.  He'd called me the night before at 2 a.m. and all those thoughts went through my head.  I hadn't answered that night and I wonder if I'd answered if things would be different.  I remember two of my friends came over here right away and they were there for me.  To this day, I still think he's going to walk through the door.  It sucks.      

What are the toughest things in your life now that he's gone?  

Chad: The toughest thing for me is knowing my dad isn't here for advice.  Even the simple things are hard.  I'm really into guns and my dad could build them like there was no tomorrow.  I first bought an AR and I wanted to add a free floating handrail so I needed a low-profile gas block put on but it only had the regular A2 front-site gas block.  In my mind, I thought I'll just call dad and ask him.  Then I thought, "I can't."  I ended up having to take it to a gunsmith.  It's hard not to be able to call for any advice.  He's definitely my drive to work harder every day.  He's a huge part of why I want to join the Marines.  My mom thinks I'm chasing something and I think she's right but I don't know what that is yet.  

What do you think your dad taught you that will impact you in joining the Marines?

Chad: My dad made me strong-willed and mentally prepared me for a lot.  If he hadn't taught me how to be a man and how to hold emotions in when you need to, I probably wouldn't be here right now.  It's ironic that the lessons he taught me are the same things that helped me when he passed away.  I have friends that tell me I'm as strong as hell and that's because of my dad.  He taught me what real leadership looks like.  I think that'll definitely help me when I join the Marines.

What's it been like dealing with his suicide?

Chad: I was very depressed when my dad died because it didn't seem like something he'd do.  When you think of my dad, the first thing that comes to my mind is, "badass."  He was a Marine, did two combat tours with them, then did two tours of combat with the Army.  He's a special kind of guy.  When he was 13, he didn't go to a regular school.  He went to the Marine Military Academy and was a Golden Gloves boxer.  He was definitely bred for the job.  He was born to serve.  He was a hard ass at times but it was always good for me.  He was definitely a badass.  I just couldn't imagine him doing what he did to himself.

Picture: Chad holds up Carter's golden glove boxing jacket from his high school varsity days at the Marine Military Academy

Has your dad's suicide changed your perception of mental issues that our guys face in coming back?  

Chad: I know that you guys see stuff over there that you're not always meant to see.  Post traumatic stress is a real thing and you might not think so but when you see a grown man cry over loud noises or things like that, you know it's very real.  My dad was a complete hardass and he still would get upset over things like that.  It definitely changes your perspective on the issues that our soldiers and Marines face over there.  I want to help the veteran community because I hate seeing these guys go through these things.  I hated watching my dad go through some of the things he did.   My dad had to do some unspeakable things for the service of his nation and he came back and got treated like shit in a lot of ways.  More than anything, it pisses me off.  

Do you wish your dad would've talked with you more about the things he went through over there?  

Chad: Sometimes I wish he would've talked more about Iraq, just so I could have insight into his experiences.  Maybe it could've helped me understand why he did some of the things he did when he got back.  When he first got back from Iraq in '05 I think I was six or seven.  I wanted to stay up every night with him and I remember hearing some things about his time over there I probably shouldn't have heard at such an early age.  He was drinking when he told me those things and he wasn't a drunk but the alcohol definitely helped him cope with some of those things.  It's not a healthy way to deal with those things though.  There needs to be other ways to do that.  

How much has your mom done for you?  

Chad: I work in the air conditioning service and make about twelve dollars an hour.  I try to always show my mom how much I appreciate her on Mother's Day by treating her about as well as I can with the money I have.  She deserves a mansion on one of the Fiji Islands, with a Rolls-Royce.  She deserves the best.  Without her, I wouldn't be the man I am today.  I wouldn't be as respectful as I am towards women.  Quite honestly, I'd probably be a douchebag (laughs).  She's made me into the man I am today.  If I ever won the lottery, she'd definitely get a brand new house and enough money to where she'd never have to work another day in her life.  She did everything when my dad was gone on deployment and now she does the same since he's passed.  She deserves the world.  

If you could tell your dad anything right now what would you tell him?

Chad: If my dad was here I'd want to beat the shit out of him for what he's put my family through.  Although, part of me definitely would want to say, "I miss you."  That would be followed by a lot of "why?"  I want to tell him how much I love him but I can't now.  I'd ask him for advice in joining the Marines.  The one thing I always wanted was to serve with my dad in a combat zone.  I always wanted to deploy with him.  I wanted to see him in his element.  I could ask guys about him all day and have them tell me different things but I never got to see him over there.  I always wanted that.  

What would you say to civilians about having a dad in the military?

Chad: It's hard having a father in the military.  Show a little respect to those who serve and the families that are back here because they're going through a lot more than you even think.  If my dad hadn't gone over there, your dad would've had to go.  Someone has to pay the tab.  

What are your goals moving forward and how has your dad driven you?  

Chad: My goals are to join the Marine Corps and make it through bootcamp without too many problems (laughs).  I have a little bit of my dad in me so that might be a little bit of an issue.  My dad's driven me to be a stronger man and I definitely look at life differently because of him.  I want to get out of the Corps at least one rank higher than him (laughs).  He makes me want to be the best possible Marine and leader I can be.  I want to be a guy like him who could be depended upon when shit hits the fan.  I want to be loved like he was by guys like you.  I believe he's given me a lot of skill that will one day make me a good leader.  I didn't know his military side all that well but I do know guys said he was a phenomenal leader.  A lot of people looked up to him.  

How important is it for you to be a positive influence in your little brother's life now that your dad is gone? 

Chad: My brother is only ten so he wasn't around dad as much and didn't get taught as many of the lessons that I did.  Every time I come home I try to toughen him up a little bit for the real world like dad did for me.  No matter how strong you are, the world will beat you down and I think it's important for Colt to realize that.  It's my time to teach my little brother what it means to be a man.  I want to see him be strong and not feeling sorry for himself.  I know that feeling sorry for yourself holds you back from a lot of good things in life.  He's smart as hell.  He's much smarter than me and my dad.  He already wants to go to Baylor.  If you'd asked me what school I wanted to go to at his age, it would've been the United States Marine Corps.  I do things differently now that I know he's looking up to me.  There are certain bad decisions I might've made before, where I knew my dad could tell him I wasn't doing the right thing.  Now, there's no more of that excuse.  I have to be the man that he looks up to.    


Colt Chick (Carter's Son)

What's been the hardest thing since your dad died?  

Colt: It's hard knowing my dad can't support me anymore or help me with things.  I miss him being here.  

What did you learn most from your dad?

Colt: The biggest lesson from my dad was to not be a wuss.  

How did your dad impact you in your life?

Colt: I always try to work harder because of my dad.  I repeat things in school if I think I should to.  He makes me work harder on my schoolwork because I know it's the right thing to do.  

Who's helped you out the most since he's been gone? 

Colt: My mom has helped the most since dad's been gone.  My mom's always been there to support me.  She always cheers me on and helps me with anything I need.  She never looks down on me.  

What were your favorite things about your dad?  

Colt: Dad was always funny and spending time with him was always awesome.  We watched movies and played "zombies" on X Box.  

What would you tell someone about losing your dad if they were your age?  

Colt: I would tell any kid my age that you shouldn't take your dad for granted.  One day he might not be there and you'll miss him like I miss mine.  

When I see the Chick family at present, I see the strength and perseverance of Carter's wife, Nikki.  I see a woman that's long been the proverbial glue, holding the family together through the extreme rigors of a military life and now the even more difficult circumstance of losing Carter.  I see two sons that are now without the mentorship of their father as they enter some of the most important years of their life.  I often wonder what things would be like if Carter was still around.  I wonder what it would be like if the boys still had their dad and Nikki still had her husband.  I can't imagine those hard lonely nights, and the question of "why?" always resonating.  The fact is that question of "why?" will most likely never be answered this side of eternity.  That lack of clarity is one of the most painful parts of a lingering loss.