December 9, 1985 - April 28, 2007
I know only one Gold Star Mom – a title given to a woman who has lost a son in the service of our country. Her name is Robyn Ornsby, the mom of my daughter Alicia’s long time bestie, Morgan.
Memorial Day is not just another national holiday for a Gold Star Mom—it’s a time to grieve a child they lost for the rest of us. In service to the United States, soldiers in the U.S. Army, Navy, Marines, and Air Force obey without question—imagine that for a moment. They obey without the luxury of saying, “Nah, not for me…not this time.” Sometimes in the line of duty, they are killed by the enemy. Memorial Day is the day that Americans hang their flag and say, “We remember you died for us –for our freedom.
“Ever since I lost my son I have battled with why people don’t celebrate this holiday,” Robyn once told me. “I have a hair salon and if I ask a group of fifty people what Memorial Day is, only one or two will know exactly who we are remembering.”
She’s not exaggerating; according to a recent Gallup poll, only a fraction of Americans know what Memorial Day is. Specifically, 28% of us answer the question correctly: this day exists to honor those who died in war.
Those who have died in war leave behind families – they remember these veterans as more than just soldiers.
|Jay-D --Two Days old
“My Jay-D was born a mischievous little monkey,” Robyn told me when I interviewed her about this holiday. “Honestly, he was a little character who found joy in challenging me!” Her laughter faded and she sighed, “I would give anything to have him here challenging me now.”
Jay-D was born on December 9, 1985 and seemed to be all boy through and through right away. “He was mighty and tough. He wouldn’t tolerate anyone bullying him. He’d give them a good fight.” As any mom would, Robyn tried to teach the delicate balance of sticking up for yourself and having self-control. This was especially hard to teach when Jay-D fought for his friends in the same manner.
“I would get a call from the principal's office, and they'd tell me that Jay-D was in there for fighting a boy who was bullying someone else,” Robyn told me. “When he got home, I would ask him ‘Why are you now fighting other people’s battles?’ He answered me straight, ‘Well, it just isn’t right!’”
Jay-D seemed drawn to help the disadvantaged, from the underdogs at school to the handicapped. “At a time when it was not cool for him to help the Down Syndrome kids in school, he would. We were at the movies once and a man in a wheelchair was trying to gain access and the other kids were just watching. It was Jay-D who stood up and helped the man open the door and find his way down the aisles. He was just like that, always helping someone.”
The boy who fought other people’s battles grew to have his own tender interior. “He taught himself how to play guitar, he loved ‘Sweet Home Alabama,’ which he played very well.”
After high school, Jay-D chose to enlist in the US Army, since career opportunities were scarce without college. “Jay-D wanted to get his life started,” Robyn said. “He knew that if he enlisted he would be able to earn money for college and get other opportunities.” At twenty years old, Jay-D enlisted, was sworn in, and scheduled to go to boot camp.
“Once boot camp was over,” Robyn told me. “Everything changed. He was very focused on fighting for his country. Shortly after, he was deployed to Baghdad, Iraq, where he served as a tanker gunner. While the main gun is what most people think of when it comes to tanks, Jay D was part of the crew that operated the machine guns mounted outside.
Robyn told me about the day that Jay-D was killed.
“It was actually supposed to be his day off. He wasn’t supposed to work that day, but they needed him. He agreed to go, not only because he was part of a team, but also he could apply that day to his next leave.” Instead of their usual tank, the team took a Hummer as part of a convoy and made their way through the streets. On the side of the road, waiting, was the enemy. As soon as the company’s Hummer was in range, the enemy exploded an IED – an Improvised Explosive Device.
It was a massive tragedy. Of the four soldiers in Jay-D’s Hummer, three were killed. The enemy was fired upon by the surviving convoy and killed, but their deaths do not bring justice. There are cruel realities in life, and war is hell.
“I was able to bury Jay-D in Sunset View, a cemetery in Jackson,” Robyn said, after she composed herself. “It is a beautiful and peaceful place.” Every year the Ornsby’s do something special to celebrate the day. One year, Robyn had a BBQ, decorated a wine barrel and burned a candle for her son all day.
For Memorial Day, this Gold Star Mom has a cherished wish: that Americans would stop and remember what this day really is all about. “I see the advertisements for the Auto Malls, the shopping centers, and the grocery stores. All of them say “Memorial Day Sale!” I wonder if they will honor any fallen Veterans there; I think they won’t. It’s all a money-making opportunity then.”
I think about Jay-D a lot. His sister, Morgan (my daughter’s bestie) has a beautiful (gorgeous!) young son – named Jay-D—that will never meet his Uncle.
“I love little Jay-D!” Robyn says, her voice lifting with excitement. “Morgan shares him with me and I watch him every Monday!”
|Jay-D Ornsby on the left -- and Morgan's Jay-D on the right
Everyone who has lost a person close to them know the painful reality that life goes on. While it does, it helps to grieve with others. On Monday, we all grieve together. I will grieve with the Ornsbys for their son; I will grieve for all who fell in battle.
Our soldiers are more than men and women in uniform. They are someone's baby, someone's spouse, someone's uncle or aunt. Today I will grieve the fallen; I will celebrate every freedom I have inherited and they have defended.
That’s what Memorial Day is.
Every time you hear Sweet Home Alabama, remember Jay-Dplaying this on the guitar, and then remember his mother.