(NEW YORK) — Kylie Willis says she remembers when her father told her that he wanted to enlist in the Army. She was 9 at the time, and said she wanted to tell him no.
“I think I just heard something in his voice, even at 9 years old, that made me know that this was important to him. So I said, ‘OK,'” Willis told ABC News, sitting outside her home in Martinsburg, West Virginia.
“And, you know, seven, eight years later, we lost him because of that decision. And I struggled with that for a long time,” she added, pausing to take a deep breath.
Her father, Staff Sgt. Kirk Owen, was killed in August 2011, one month into his Afghanistan tour by a roadside bomb. According to Willis, Owen took the front seat of the car because he considered it the most dangerous place to be and didn’t want another soldier to ride in that position.
“My dad went over there for a reason. He went over there to protect people. He went over there to provide them clean drinking water. He went over there to make sure that little girls could go to school. and he did that. He did his mission. He did his job. And unfortunately, he was killed while he was doing that, but that doesn’t mean his sacrifice meant nothing,” said Willis.
That sacrifice is something Willis carries with her every day. Now, at 26 years old and expecting her first child, she said there’s not a day that goes by that she doesn’t think about what her family lost. For the past decade, she searched for a way to honor him and continue his legacy of service that she said he didn’t get to finish.
Willis eventually joined Children of Fallen Patriots, a Washington, D.C.,-based nonprofit that provides college scholarships and educational counseling to military children who have lost a parent in the line of duty. Willis was one of the more than 10,000 children who have benefited from the organization, she said.
“I make sure that the other sons and daughters of our fellow service members know that their mommy and their daddy meant something, and that we love them and we will take care of them,” Willis told ABC News, a tear rolling slowly down her face.
Since 2001, more than 7,000 American service members have been killed fighting the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
For some families, like Willis’, the cost was incredibly high. But each family with a loved one serving in the war made a sacrifice.
In Bethany Montjoy’s case, her father survived the war and eventually came home. But by the time her father, Technical Sgt. Tim D. Montjoy had served 20 years in the Air Force, he had already missed more than a quarter of her life.
“You have these thoughts of when are they going to come back,” said Montjoy. “[You] want to talk to them, [you] want to hug them.”
As she grew older and as her father neared retirement, Montjoy said she wanted to channel her father’s legacy of service into helping other military kids who were also missing their parents. That’s when she and her father came up with the idea of getting military kids around high-profile role models like professional athletes. The pair created Operation Teammate, a nonprofit based in Georgia that introduces kids to athletes.
Capt. Nathaniel Lee was only 7 when his father, an Air Force captain, was killed in a training accident in 1997.
“It was like in a movie where the chaplain and the commander pulled up in a car,” said Lee. “And my mom’s reaction was instant. She knew why they were there.”
Life changed quickly for Lee’s family. Without family close by, they moved back to Northern California where Lee’s mom was from. And while it was great to have the family support, Lee said that it effectively cut them off from the military community, which made it hard to relate to the new kids in his class.
“Being the new kid is already hard,” said Lee, “And I didn’t want to be [the] kid whose dad died, so I was telling people that my parents were divorced and that’s why my dad wasn’t around.”
Concerned that he wasn’t expressing his grief, he said his mother helped him find a place amid the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivor, or TAPS, an organization that works with those grieving the death of a military family member. At his first event, Lee said he opened up for the first time about his dad.
Years later, though Lee became an officer in the Air Force and later joined the newly created Space Force. He said he felt the achievement wasn’t enough in honoring his father’s memory.
Around that time he was promoted, he received an email from TAPS looking for mentors, and said he took it as a sign.
At his first event as a mentor, he said the organizers brought all the mentors into one big room.
“They said: ‘Take a seat and leave an empty seat next to you, and a kid who’s lost someone is gonna walk in and sit down next to you, and it’s your job to start talking to them,'” explained Lee, and said he was more than a little nervous at the time.
Lee was paired that first day with Annelise Miller, whose father died in 2016 after 23 years of distinguished military service when she was only 8 years old.
“I remember my brother told me that it was OK to cry, but I didn’t really feel like crying,” Miller, now 13, told ABC News, recalling the day she found out her father had died.
It’s been five years since Miller sat down next to Lee that day in the oversized room, and their relationship is more meaningful than ever, she said.
“I don’t know anyone that has gone through mostly the same thing that I have gone through,” said Miller.
“He understands what it means to lose a father figure. He lost him when he was young too, so I can relate to him,” added Miller.
“No one’s grief journey is the same,” said Lee.
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