Kelli Day met Shawn Campbell her junior year of college at Texas A&M in College Station.
"He was already on the military track and dreamed of becoming a pilot. We were working together at a coffee shop when he asked me to go mountain biking, and the rest is history," she says. "We got engaged a month before he left for officer candidate school and got married a week after he came home after completing school, and had four children: Tristan, Kenna, Kate and Donovan, who are now 15, 12, 10 and 5."
Shawn became a Marine and flew the CH-53, the Marine Corps' largest helicopter, known as the Super Stallion. Maj. Campbell was deployed three times in the Middle East during his 15-year military career.
In 2016, Campbell went on a routine night-training mission at his home base in Hawaii. Just before midnight, his helicopter collided with another and 12 Marines were killed, including Campbell.
"Years ago we decided that if something happened to Shawn, I would take the kids and move to Kansas City where my family lived," Kelli says. "We went there not knowing if we would stay. Shawn and I had dreams for our kids, plans for things we would do together as a family."
While in Kansas, Kelli was introduced to Folds of Honor, an Oklahoma-based charity that provides educational scholarships to the children and spouses of fallen and disabled service members. Founded by Maj. Dan Rooney, an Air Force Reserve pilot and former Air Force F-16 fighter pilot with three combat tours in Iraq, the organization has awarded more than 16,000 scholarships in all 50 states, as well as Guam, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands.
The nonprofit has given out more than $100 million in scholarship funds throughout its 11 years of existence. Folds currently receives more scholarship applications than it can support, but the organization is committed to growing until it can provide educational assistance to all spouses and children of America's fallen and disabled service members.
"Folds of Honor gave us a way to start over and honor Shawn's legacy by giving the kids the things we wanted for them," Kelli shares. "Scholarships from Folds of Honor allowed our three oldest children to attend a school together where they were provided with the educational, extracurricular and personal support they needed. They gave our children a lifeline because they understood their needs at a very difficult time."
While Memorial Day is typically seen as the kickoff to summer, it is also a day to pause and remember that the reason we get to celebrate is because of the brave men and women who have given the ultimate sacrifice.
"I don't think Shawn would want us sitting around having a pity party on Memorial Day, but he would want us to stop what we are doing and say the names of people we know who served and gave their life for our freedom," Kelli says. "We used to make a point of taking the kids to the closest national cemetery to look at headstones and remember friends we had known and lost. We both felt it was important for our children to understand the significance of this day."
Kelli describes her husband as "not your typical hardheaded Marine" but soft-spoken, kind, gentle and fun. She intends to keep her husband's memory alive for her children by reminding them how he lived and served our country. She also wants to help other families who are on a similar journey. She is currently a regional development officer for Folds of Honor and also serves on their national speakers bureau and Kansas Chapter board.
As Americans, our job is not only to keep the memories of these men and women alive but to come alongside their families and walk with them. Here are just a few of many ways we can support military families:
* Give respite to the single parent by taking the children for a few hours.
* Say thank you. These families make a significant sacrifice on behalf of our country. Acknowledging this is huge.
* Include the sons or daughters of deployed or fallen parents in your parent/child activities.
* Organize meals just like you would for a new baby. Set aside one night a week to deliver food to the family.
* Have your whole block tie yellow ribbons around trees to help everyone remember their deployed or fallen neighbor.
* Check on the family regularly. The spouse who is left behind needs to know that another grown-up is around even if they don't need anything.
* Invite the family along on outings with your family even if it's just for a quick ice cream.
* Think about chores the fallen parent would have normally done. Help with the garbage cans each week, or offer to change the oil in the car. Help with the window air conditioners or just getting the Christmas tree into the house.
* Write letters or send cards to let them know you are thinking about them.
We need to intentionally and proactively serve military families. They have made and continue to make it possible for us to reap the benefits of their willingness to serve.
Julie Baumgardner is president and CEO of family advocacy nonprofit First Things First. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.