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'A Big Hurt to Get Over': Woman who Lost Marine Son Heals by Helping Others Through USO

Monday, August 05, 2013

This story originally appeared in the 2013 USO Annual Report, available at alwaysbytheirside.uso.org.  

By Eric Brandner  

Raleigh, N.C. – North Carolina looks like camouflage from the sky.

Muted greens and browns highlighted by a soft blue glare greet Raleigh-Durham-bound passengers as they descend on the airport. On the ground is one of the largest military populations in the country. It’s a state with tens of thousands of mothers who’ve sent a child to serve in America’s armed services.  

Some never get them back.  

‘Our First and Only Dance’  

Julie Webb has lots of pictures. Her son Jeffrey was an all-American kid. There’s Jeffery in a football uniform. Jeffrey on stage during a high school production. Jeffrey proposing to his girlfriend moments after she graduated from the University of North Carolina.  

“[Our] first and only dance,” she said, pointing to a faded color photo. “We were at the same wedding and he said ‘Come on Mom, we’re going to have to dance because we’re going to have to practice because you’re going to dance with me at my wedding.’”  

There are other pictures, too. Jeffrey with his face painted in those muted browns and greens. Jeffrey pointing out a perfectly folded cuff on his Marine uniform. Jeffrey riding in a military vehicle sporting a helmet and sunglasses.  

Jeffrey Stephen Webb died Sept. 21, 2007, when his Humvee flipped over after a night of live-fire training at Fort A.P. Hill in Virginia. According to Julie, he’d taken over the gunner’s place in the turret near the end of the exercise. When the Humvee flipped, Jeffrey was crushed beneath it.  

“My son was a Marine. And he loved being a Marine,” Julie said. “That’s a big hurt to get over.”  

Julie retired from nursing in 2009 and turned to volunteering in an attempt to both fill her hours and advance her healing process.  

She spends one day a week at the Veterans Affairs hospital in Durham, helping keep the waiting room straight for the nurses on call, making sure surgeons don’t forget to talk with patients families and ensuring the quiet seniors in the corner aren’t forgotten.  

She spends another day tutoring at a local elementary school. “You should see me with the [multiplication] flash cards,” she said, laughing. “Thank goodness the answer’s on the back.”  

And she spends at least two days a week with the USO, taking her originally assigned Monday shift and also helping out on Tuesday, when a larger contingent of Marines usually comes through the airport.  

The Family Support Team  

Getting the green badge at Raleigh-Durham International Airport (RDU) is a bit of a process. There’s a four-hour class and a test, not to mention the background checks beforehand. Not just anyone is allowed on an American tarmac these days.  

Roughly 20 USO of North Carolina staffers and volunteers have the badge, which they can scan to expedite their way past TSA checkpoints. It’s a necessary hurdle to clear in their unique line of volunteer work. These badge holders – including Julie – are part of the USO of North Carolina’s Honor Support and Family Support Teams. It’s a unique group of USO volunteers on call 24/7 to assist families of the fallen transitioning through Raleigh-Durham International on the way to dignified transfers of remains at Dover Air Force Base, Del., or to their loved one’s final resting place.  

The Family Support Team is an offshoot of USO of North Carolina’s Honors Support team. Founded in 2006 and spearheaded by USO volunteers Ken Tigges and Joe Donnelly, the team makes sure the remains of fallen troops are never left unattended, ensuring a dignified transfer while on airport grounds.  

Julie Webb became aware of the team in 2009, when she started volunteering at the airport’s USO center. She was approached to join the Honors Support Team, but didn’t think she could handle seeing more flag-draped caskets. Eventually, fellow USO volunteer Gary Marting invited her to join the USO Family Support Team, an offshoot from the Honors team that dealt directly with family members of the fallen.  

“They started the Family Support Team and I thought, ‘Well, I can do that because there’ll be mothers or sisters or daughters or some family that will be going through the airport and I can help them,” she said.  

The USO Family Support Team is notified of each mission by either the national USO Families of the Fallen office or by the casualty assistance officer traveling with the remains. They coordinate as many volunteers as needed to be at the airport to help the inbound family. The airport’s USO has a chaplain on call, and if he can’t make it, the airport’s TSA Security Director George Green – an ordained Baptist minister – can step in if the traveling family requests a spiritual advisor.  

There’s a good amount of work to be done before the family even gets to the airport. The USO Family Support Team contacts the TSA to request a private security screening line for the family. Next, they contact a manager at the traveling family’s airline to see if they can get the family seated together, upgraded to first class or even get them a direct flight to their final destination if they’re slated to connect through multiple airports. The USO also has relationships with airline clubs in the terminal, which provide private spaces for traveling families.  

“We’ve found that what the family desires more than anything else when they’re in this state of mind is privacy,” Marting said.  

When the family arrives, the Family Support Team greets them inside the terminal, finds out their preferences and briefs them on the flight and the remains transfer procedures. If the remains are traveling through the airport with the family, the team accompanies the family members to the tarmac to view the transfer of the flag-draped casket. The team also has a special announcement prepared to read at the gate, requesting passengers’ patience while the family pre-boards and exits first when the plane lands.  

‘It’s Their Worst Day’  

No one’s ever sure what to expect when the family arrives.  

“In the case of a Dover mission, these families are in shock,” Marting said. “They’re in extreme grief and trauma. And you can tell from talking to Julie – her personality is very calming – when they find out that she’s a Gold Star Mother, it’s an amazing transformation that you see in the eyes of these grieving family members.”  

Julie says every grieving family is different, both in their circumstances and their reactions to death. Some want a chaplain, some don’t. Most want privacy, but some will talk. But none of the mothers of the fallen know that the flight line at Dover can get backed up, causing delays at a time where any inconvenience is agonizing. None of the wives and girlfriends understand how it’s going to affect them when they see the cased remains.  

“The sounds that you hear when they see that casket [are] haunting,” Marting said.  

Julie stays near them while they wait to depart. She tells them what to expect at Dover, according to what she’s been told by the other families that came through before them. She boards the plane with them, making sure they have everything they came with and anything else they might need. And then she slips them her American Gold Star Mothers card and tells them to call when they need to talk to someone who’s been there before.  

“It’s their worst day,” she said. “It’s a very personal time for them, and maybe we can make it a little bit easier.”  

And while not everyone calls, the impact of those brief interactions last a long time.  

“The USO out of [Raleigh-Durham] has been compassionate beyond words,” Kelly Griffith wrote in a Jan. 12, 2012, column in the Fuquay-Varina (N.C.) Independent. Her older brother – Marine Maj. Samuel Griffith – was killed in Afghanistan on Dec. 14, 2011. “Gary Marting helped us find our way when we were completely lost. One volunteer and fellow Gold Star family member, Julie Webb, put everything into perspective for me when we learned that her son had been killed in Iraq at the age of 21. My mom said she was sorry for Julie’s loss and I’ll never forget her response.  

“‘I didn’t lose him. I know right where he is.’”    

Photo courtesy of the Webb family  

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