CAMP RIPLEY - A U.S. Navy veteran on a mission to swim the Mississippi stopped at Camp Ripley Tuesday to meet with some of the families his trek aims to honor.
“Gold Star” families have lost a member in military conflict. The name comes from the gold star some display in their homes to symbolize the son or daughter who was killed. Veteran Chris Ring plans to swim the entire length of the river in order to raise awareness for Gold Star families who lost loved ones in post-9/11 conflicts.
On Tuesday, Ring and his support team from nonprofit Legacies Alive paused their journey for a press event with some of the Gold Star families from the nearby area. Ring said his goal with the swim is to be able to walk up to any random person on the street, and have them know what a Gold Star family is. Legacies Alive co-founder Mike Viti said the idea for the group came from conversations with Gold Star families, when he asked them to name a thing they needed help with.
“The thing that most of them pointed to was, ‘The day that I fear the most is the day my loved one’s name isn’t said,’” he said. “Really, their legacy dies with the last memory.”
By performing a feat as intense as swimming the Mississippi, Ring hopes to keep the plight of Gold Star families from being ignored, and to keep the memory of the fallen from fading away.
“We can’t bring them back,” he said. “But we can honor them.”
After the press conference, the families told the waiting media about their loved ones who were killed, so that their stories might be heard by others.
Bill Smith of Grey Eagle talked about his son, Paul, who received the Medal of Honor posthumously for his actions during the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Paul Smith was a combat engineer when the unit he commanded came under attack near Saddam International Airport. Paul took over a .50 caliber machine gun for another soldier who was wounded, and drove off dozens of enemy soldiers before being hit multiple times and then killed.
Bill Smith said the men his son died for were like family to Paul. He worked them hard, but he loved them.
“He called them ‘his boys,’” he said.
Thomas McElveen from Little Falls talked about his son Anthony, a Marine killed by an improvised explosive device at Fallujah in Iraq. McElveen is a Desert Storm veteran himself, but it was the anecdotes told by the men in Anthony’s unit that helped him understand what his son’s experience was like.
“Listening to the stories from his buddies was what stunned me,” he said.
Anthony’s friends told McElveen about how his son could lighten up even the most tense situation with a well-timed joke. Once, he and his squad were creeping up on a suspected enemy position, unsure if they would be plunged into a firefight without warning. Suddenly, Anthony shouted, “Quick, act like a bush!”
Despite his mischievous nature, Anthony was excellent at what he did. The same kid who had a talent for spending time in the penalty box as a high school hockey player also received a commendation for capturing enemy combatants trying to set up an IED.
Peg Manea’s son Jonathan served in Iraq in Explosive Ordinance Disposal. Peg said Jonathan was destined to work in EOD. As a boy, he poured gasoline down the family driveway and lit it on fire as it flowed down the slope to see what would happen.
Jonathan took his own life while home on leave. Peg said she wanted her son to be remembered for his service and his love for family.
“He loved being in the Army,” she said.