Memorial Day 'a very special time' for children who recall loss of fathers who served
Small things, future hopes spark memories of dads who died in service to country
By Clifford Davis
Sarah Cramer, 24, lost her father, Staff Sgt. Paul Cramer, of the Virginia Air National Guard, in 2001. She has found comfort helping others with Children of Fallen Patriots, a foundation based in Jacksonville Beach.
While throngs of people flock to the ocean’s edge or gather at family barbecues this Memorial Day, Jacob Centeno Healy will likely spend his in one of his dad’s brown Navy undershirts and a pair of his running shorts.
“He was built like a tank,” Healy said. “He was just really massive, but for some reason I fit in his clothes.”
The clothes are among the only tangible reminders he has left of his dad.
Senior Chief Daniel Richard Healy was among the Navy SEALs and Army Night Stalkers who died June 28, 2005, when their Chinook helicopter was shot down by the Taliban as they came to rescue four other SEALs stranded and in trouble in Kunar Province, Afghanistan.
Jacob Healy was 15. He was at home where he lived with his mom, grandmother and two younger sisters.
“The casualty officers actually went to an old address where my aunt was living. She couldn’t hold the news and ended up calling my grandma,” he said. “I found out from the scream of my grandma as she was running downstairs.
“She mumbled the words, ‘Your dad.’ ”
The event is now known to millions through the book, “Lone Survivor,” by fellow SEAL Marcus Luttrell.
Unlike the movie-going public, Healy, formerly of Jacksonville, knew many of the men on that helicopter.
“Of course, I’m thinking about my dad and his brothers [in arms] on Memorial Day, but they’re always at the forefront of my mind,” he said. “I remember barbecuing with all them.
“I can put a face to their sacrifice.”
Though Memorial Day in the United States is designated specifically to honor the ultimate sacrifice of those who’ve died in service of the United States, the family members left behind bear a less final burden.
Sarah Cramer, now 24, of Jacksonville, was 10 years old when her father, Staff Sgt. Paul Cramer, died in a plane crash coming back from a training mission for the Virginia Air National Guard.
“Memorial Day is a very special time, but at the same time, there’s not a day that goes by without me remembering my dad and the life that he lived,” Cramer said.
Paul Cramer, though he pushed his children to excel, was a man who could find humor in anything, she said. “He was always there and always the light in the room,” she said. “He was a very good dad, very loving. He had his own handy man service on the side. It was called TBG Handyman Service, which actually stood for The Bald Guy.”
Still, the weight of a family member’s loss can grow heavy.
“I do wish that he’d been there to see me graduate from college, and when I do get married, to walk me down the aisle and to see the grandkids that I hope to bring him one day,” said Cramer, who is heading to a six-month internship in Australia soon. “There are different life events that I feel like I’m missing out on sometimes.
“That can be hard to process.”
Healy said he struggled to become the man of the house and fill his father’s large boots.
“It was absolutely expected of me, but I didn’t really … it was really hard,” Healy said. “I was going through my own journey of learning how to cope with things — I definitely wasn’t a model kid.
“I was very rebellious after the loss of my dad, and I made my fair share of mistakes and wrong choices.”
One of the toughest parts for Healy was the feeling of isolation that came with a loss many of his fellow classmates couldn’t understand.
“I didn’t know it at the time, but that was probably the most destructive period of my life when I didn’t have a support network,” he said. “Those first seven years, with all honesty, as I was finishing up high school and going to college was where I felt like my family’s sacrifice was taken for granted and it was because I was surrounded by nothing but civilians.
“That resulted in me being incredibly thirsty to surround myself with people who cared about my sacrifice.”
Cramer said her largest source of healing came from the ultimate symbol of sacrifice.
“I don’t know where I’d be today without that healing from God,” she said. “I can lean on Jesus if I have nothing else in this world.
“There’s so much strength and comfort that comes from that.”
Both also found healing and a sense of purpose when they reached out instead of looking inward, they said.
Children of Fallen Patriots, the foundation based in Jacksonville Beach that provided Cramer and Healy with college tuition, also hired them afterwards.
“When I graduated in May 2013 with my bachelor’s degree, there was a position that came open with Children of Fallen Patriots,” Cramer said. “It was with the programs department, which is my department now, to work directly with the students and with the families to see how we can assist them.
“Also, even more than that, I’m here to have that relationship with them as someone they can relate to, as someone who’s been through it myself, on a level that most other people can’t.”
Healy has also worked and volunteered for a number of veterans charities.
“What helped me out the most was volunteering for those initiatives,” he said. “For the past three years, I’ve mentored other kids who’ve lost a parent in the line of duty.
“That’s been a huge blessing in my life.”
Still, the loss never goes away — especially on Memorial Day.
“Here I am, 25 years old, 10 years later and it still feels like yesterday,” Healey said. “And I have to wake up tomorrow without a dad — so that’s my life.
“It’s cliché, but the sacrifice is still there and it’s important to remember it.
“I just want my dad to be remembered, like every other family member of the fallen.”
Clifford Davis: (904) 359-4103