Fourteen sons and daughters of our country’s fallen heroes attended this year’s Freedom Alliance Scholarship Fund (FASF) Weekend Retreat. For some participants, this was their first retreat, while for others it was a return trip. Even so, for all it was landmark event.
One great intention in the work of Freedom Alliance is to provide for the children of those who have made this ultimate offering of their lives in military service. The FASF does this by meeting financial needs for those young people pursuing college degrees. Our scholarship recipients attend schools all over the country, and some of these students happened to be quite young when they lost their parent.
Many of these heroes are buried at Arlington National Cemetery, near Washington, D.C., and so, this is where the FASF retreat convenes each year. For our attendants, 10 of the 14 had parents interred in the cemetery. We gave each of these a wreath, flowers, and a flag to lay on the headstones; the other four accompanied others to their fathers’ burial sites.
Previous retreat attendees also made their way to friends’ fathers’ markers to offer their care and solace, having known one another for some years now.
Anthony Cutino hadn’t been to his father’s grave in a long while. He said it was tough being there, but he appreciated having the chance and had been looking forward to it. Master Sergeant Cutino was killed in a helicopter crash when Anthony was nine years old.
Madeline Voas recently graduated with a degree in anthropology from the University of Central Florida. “I’ve wanted nothing more than to do that lately. I miss him,” she said of her father, Air Force Major Randell Voas.
Strive Communications president, Victor Rogers, a steadfast Freedom Alliance advocate, came along with his daughter Abi to offer his support. He authentically conveyed his thankfulness and respect to the students as they returned from the gravesides.
As solemn as this moment was…having a bunch of college students together, we couldn’t not have some amusement, as well.
We headed from Arlington to the Harper’s Ferry Adventure Center in Purcellville, Virginia, for a confidence-shaping, teamwork-building challenge. More than 50 cable and rope bridges and zip lines make up this aerial ropes course.
Anna Muralles, whose father Marcus was killed in Afghanistan, is afraid of heights, and yet, to her astonishment, she was able to complete the track.
“I’ve never done anything like that before,” exclaimed Cortney Horrigan. “I really felt like I overcame something I thought was one of my biggest fears…heights!”
The Ritz-Carlton at Pentagon City gave us a great deal on accommodations, so the students were able to experience the nation’s capital after all the activities, which included dinner, shopping, and dancing.
On Saturday, the crew gathered with Freedom Alliance president, Tom Kilgannon, at George Washington’s Mount Vernon Estate and Gardens. We embarked upon a VIP tour, given by Mrs. Gail Cassidy, which included an unnerving trip up a ladder to the cupola to overlook the beautiful estate grounds, something very few visitors have the opportunity to do.
After checking out the mansion, we met Freedom Alliance supporter Tillie Smithers at General and Mrs. Washington’s tomb. Tillie sponsored the boxwood wreath, which was laid at the graves, and FASF Ambassador Shannon Zangas read George Washington’s prayer for our country.
Brandon Pettaway very much enjoyed the history of Mount Vernon. Brandon’s father died as a result of injuries sustained in Fallujah, Iraq.
That evening, the group traveled to Medieval Times in Baltimore for a dinner and tournament, where we cheered the yellow knight as he battled for his good name. The staff treated our students like royalty and even graciously bestowed to us a group portrait in medieval attire.
There were so many exceptional moments during the weekend, but the most remarkable wonder was the instant attachments these kids developed for one another. Their shared experience of losing a father in wartime bonded them, and all 14 want to come again for next year’s retreat to see each other.
“I don’t think there are enough words to describe how amazing it is to be with strangers in the first few hours and then among some of the greatest people to know within such a short time,” said David, son Army Sergeant First Class Paul R. Smith. In 2005, when David was 11 years old, he received in his father’s stead the Medal of Honor from President George W. Bush.
The 2014 retreat, although a short, action-packed two days, covered some very touching moments in between all the events, camaraderie, and fun.
But the best part about these retreats seems to be the enduring friendships that follow between young people who experienced all too early the grief of losing a parent. This is a tragedy that only they can fully grasp—the children of our fallen heroes.
For you, we profoundly express our gratitude and honor your fathers’ sacrifice.
Below is an excerpt from a personal narrative Shannon Zangas, our Scholarship Ambassador, wrote after the retreat.
Friday morning was our visit to Arlington: the main event of our trip. Even though my father is not buried there, it was important to me to support my new friends. I accompanied Anna and we delicately placed the yellow roses, handmade wreath and American flag in front of her father’s beautiful memorial stone and admired a gold coin that was left by a previous visitor. I was moved by her strength and the beauty and intensity of the scene that morning of our group surrounded by hundreds of thousands of fallen heroes’ headstones, and we both cried together. The visit being the weekend before Father’s Day was an important reminder that we are not alone. It was a moment I will never forget and I am glad to have been there with her….
As we were leaving Arlington, a startled robin drew our attention to the grave of an Army Captain who, like my father, was killed in Iraq in 2004. Incredibly, nestled against the front of the headstone was a tiny nest and two perfect eggs the robin had been guarding. The sight completely took my breath away. I believe in my heart that robin is letting the soldier know he and his family will be taken care of, and symbolized how each one of us has guardians, such as Tillie and Mr. Rogers, who are looking out for us as well.