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Children of the fallen: Supporting military families through grief

Three people are seated together on a sofa in a living area. A boy, a girl and their mother are looking at a photo album, open on the mother’s lap.
Screen Capture
VPM News Focal Point
Mandi Bennett lost her husband in 2012 while he was serving his third tour in Afghanistan.

Beginning on Veteran’s Day on November 11th and extending through the winter holiday season, many Americans focus on the well-being of the country’s military personnel and veterans. One Navy veteran chose to place the focus on the children of those who have died in service to America. As we close the month of November, which is National Children’s Grief Awareness Month, we see how A Soldier’s Child is honoring the fallen by remembering their children.


MANDI BENNETT: That's me right before I had you, buddy.

ANGIE MILES: So in what ways do you think you are like your dad?

ZEUS BENNETT: My energeticness, my mischief, and they say my face looks like it too.

ANGIE MILES: According to his family, Wade Zeus Bennett is mischievous like his dad. Zeus carries the legacy of a man he never met in life.

ANGIE MILES: I want you to confess about some of this mischief of yours.


ANGIE MILES: (laughing) Oh yeah, he's like now we're talking.

ANGIE MILES: This little touch of mischief in this otherwise good kid is actually a source of comfort for mother Mandi, the woman who never dreamed that her husband would not be coming home from active duty. Staff Sergeant Kenneth Wade Bennett was on his third tour in Afghanistan when he was killed by an improvised explosive device, an IED, in 2012. He was just 26 years old, and left behind his wife, his little girl, and his baby boy yet to be born.

ANGIE MILES: Tell me about the day you learned that you had lost Wade.

MANDI BENNET: I think so many of us think it going to happen like in the movies, and it's not. I wasn't actually even notified by the military. It was another wife that told me. I remember finally seeing that car pull up, and my mom saying, "Mandy, they're here." And I said, "I don't want to answer that door." And I remember just standing there looking at these people, just not wanting them to say anything, just hoping they wouldn't say a word. And you know, then they say the words you never want to hear and you know, you think of every other possible thought, maybe it wasn't him, and then you don't want it to be somebody else. And the world just really, my life got divided. It was before and after, and still to this day I still divide our lives into ‘oh well that was before I lost my husband, and well this is afterI lost my husband.’ I mean 11 years later, and that still will, I think, always be a giant division in my life.

ANGIE MILES: On this 11th anniversary of losing Wade, his family remembers, but every day they work hard to keep his memory alive, to cherish every good thing about him.

LILA BENNETT: He wanted help people. I mean that's why he went into military. He also wanted to see things blow up, but he mostly wanted to be there to help people, and I was little, I didn't understand it at the time, but now I understand he wanted really to help people. He was amazing.

ANGIE MILES: In the years since Wade's passing, the Bennetts say they've received an incredible amount of love and kindness from individuals who knew Wade.

LILA BENNETT: Like at school when it's like Father's Day, you're supposed to make your dad a card. Situations like that and when it's like daddy-daughter dances. Luckily some people from the units will come with me and they'll dance with me and it's just so much fun.

ANGIE MILES: Mandi says the kindness has poured in from strangers as well. And at the top of that list is A Soldier's Child, a Tennessee based nonprofit that remembers the sacrifice of Gold Star Service Membersby remembering their families. A Soldier's Child founder, Daryl Mackin, talks about the little boy on the organization's web page.

DARYL MACKIN: That boy's Christian Golczynski, and his grandparents were my neighbors here in Murfreesboro, Tennessee. His father was Marine Staff Sergeant Marcus Golczynski, who was killed by Sniper Fire in Iraq March 27th, 2007, which was only about, I think two weeks before he was supposed to come back from his second tour of duty.

ANGIE MILES: Mackin quotes a letter written by Golczynski explaining why he served and risked his life for the country.

DARYL MACKIN: He said, "We are warriors, and as warriors that have gone before us, we fight and sometimes die so our families don't have to. It is our unity that has allowed us to prosper as a nation." So he asked us, those of us that live in this country free off of the sacrifice of men and women that laid down thelives for our freedoms. He says stand beside us.

ANGIE MILES: The idea for A Soldier's Child came to Mackin as he stood in his neighbor's garage and was asked this question by Marcus's father.

DARYL MACKIN: He said to me, "Did it matter, and does anybody even care?" And he left me standing in his garage that night. I consider myself a Christian patriot. I love this country and I love the men and women that wear the uniform. And I thought to myself, and as a veteran, that I never thought of the families that were left behind.

ANGIE MILES: That was the beginning of an organization that honors thousands of fallen service members by making a commitment to nurture and mentor their children.

ANGIE MILES: What has A Soldier's Child meant for your family?

MANDI BENNETT: So finding out with A Soldier's Child and all the outdoor campsthat they do has been huge. It was really so exciting to see my daughter's face light up the first time I picked her up from that camp two years ago, and how excited she was. They just blossomed when they were there. And that's from a mom's standpoint, giving them something I can't. I don't know how sometimes we got so lucky to find organizations like this.

ZEUS BENNETT: I like that you get to go out, have no electronics that are distracting you, and have people that you can relate to. It's just lots of fun. You get to go out there with different kids that have felt the same experience of you.

ANGIE MILES: A Soldier's Child holds hunting and fishing camps and other special events for Gold Star Children throughout the year. These experiences are unique as these children are grieving a very specific kind of loss

MANDI BENNETT: It's something that I feel like is so healing in different ways, and they can feel normal for a few days. They don't have to feel like they have to hide this or be sad because it's not their dad that gets to take 'em hunting for the first time. 'cause they know all the other kids there are also going through this and experiencing this loss with them.

ANGIE MILES: And then there are the birthdays. A Soldier's Child sends specially requested birthday presents to about 250 children each month.

LILA BENNETT: They decorate a package specially for each kid. And it says "Don't open till your birthday." And there's fun gifts. There's really corny dad jokes that I always love to laugh at. It's lots of fun to get that on your birthday and see it.

ANGIE MILES: Heather von Loh is another Gold Star Parent whose children have benefited from A Soldier's Child. Her husband, Dustin, died of cancer in 2009 after having been exposedto the burn pits in Iraq.

HEATHER VON LOH: We would travel from Nebraska to Tennessee, and it's 15 hours we would drive, and we would come to the camps. And Grace, my daughter, she absolutely just fellin love with everybody. And my son, when he started coming to camp, it just really helped him to mature because he is the only boy in our family and he never got achance to meet his dad, because I was pregnant with him at the time of my husband's death. After about five years of traveling back and forth, we decided with prayer that it was time to move. And so here we are.

ANGIE MILES: Here she is, now Director of Programs for A Soldier's Child helping to further the work to reach more Gold Star Children. Mackin says, the pivotal part of the program is remembrance with honor.

DARYL MACKIN: You're honoring these families, and by doing so, celebrating these children's birthdays every single year and giving them that message that you know, we see you, and you're not invisible. It did matter, we do care.

ANGIE MILES: Mandi Bennett and her children are among thousands of Gold Star Families receiving that message. As she shows the precious keepsakes in what she calls her Wade room, she expresses appreciation that others know what she knows, that her husband's life and sacrifice still matter to the country he died to protect, and that their children matter as well.

Angie Miles, Host/Producer, anchors and hosts VPM News Focal Point and special broadcasts.