GARDNER, Kan. — Mother’s Day isn’t an occasion to celebrate for everyone. It can be a bittersweet time for the reported 1.7 million American families who’ve lost loved ones in battle.
But on Wednesday, one Johnson County mother told her story, which will soon enter the Library of Congress with others.
This Sunday’s holiday is usually filled with mixed emotions for Gold Star military moms, such as Gardner’s Debbie Austin. It’s been 13 years since her son, U.S. Army PFC Shane Austin, was killed by an enemy grenade while riding in a tank in Iraq.
“He had a daredevil personality. He never turned down a dare,” Debbie said.
Debbie showed how Shane’s affable personality leaped from photos he’d send home from the Middle East. He was often flashing “the horns,” a hand gesture that’s often seen at hard rock concerts. Shane was courageous and ready for anything.
That’s why Debbie has that hand gesture tattooed on her forearm.
“All I heard was, ‘We regret to inform you,'” Debbie recalled Wednesday, flashing back to the moment she learned of Shane’s passing.
That stunning second from October 2006, when two formally-dressed soldiers appeared on her porch with bad news, may never set in. Debbie said Shane, one of her three sons, was killed while trying to protect others from that grenade.
“That particular moment is a little tough for me because I was not there for my son when he was taking his last breath,” Debbie told FOX4. “It’s kind of tough. He will live on in my heart.”
In Gardner, Shane’s hometown, she met retired Navy officer Keith Sherman, who operates Gold Star Dirt. Sherman said it’s his mission to travel the country telling stories of the families who are left to cope with these losses.
The Gardner mom spoke to FOX4, as well as Gold Star Dirt, while sitting near a memorial in Johnson County’s Veterans Memorial Park. A monument in that Gardner park bears Shane’s name, as well as those of others local heroes who died while defending American freedoms.
“That hole in my heart will always be there. There will always be a piece missing,” Debbie said.
Sherman said he’s hitting all 50 states with video camera in hand, telling stories that will eventually be archived in the Library of Congress.
The “dirt” in Gold Star Dirt comes from Sherman’s love for dirt bikes. He travels with a dirt bike attached to the back of his car, and he explained how riding his bike at every stop along the way is a therapeutic release.
“Every one of these stories is very touching and cathartic. I’ve lost a lot of friends through my military services, and for me, it’s a healing journey to sit and talk with these families,” Sherman said.
Debbie also wants to dispel the belief that missing a fallen loved one gets easier over time.
Sherman said he hopes telling these stories offers Gold Star Families the support they deserve. Gold Star Dirt is funded by donations and Sherman’s retirement account from the military. You can read more at this website, which also includes information about his crowdfunding efforts.