Editor’s note: A decade ago, Lisa Freeman of Richmond Hill lost her son, Marine Capt. Matthew Freeman, who was killed in action in Afghanistan. Lisa Freeman wrote this for the Bryan County News on the 10th anniversary of her son’s death.
I smile. I laugh. I love. I live. Ten years ago this month, I wouldn’t have believed any of those things were possible again.
The community and God helped me heal.
The morning of August 7, 2009, my husband left for work and I headed to Richmond Hill Middle School to start my last school year after 30 years of teaching.
My oldest daughter was heading back to college with a 3 month old and a husband leaving for war. My youngest daughter was beginning her second year at the Naval Academy. My son had called me a few days before asking for me to start a fundraiser to get school supplies to him to distribute to the children he met in Kapisa Province, Afghanistan. Having a family member in such a dangerous place wasn’t new to me. I grew up military and remember my Dad in Vietnam clearly, but this was my son.
No sooner had the students begun to enter my room when the power blew in the school. Attendance and class changes were now sent by courier or word of mouth. Everything felt wrong. I continued to meet classes, tell them a little about me and my family and about Matthew’s request for school supplies. We’d just finished up lunch in our room when the principal met me in the hall.
Since I was the senior teacher on the hall, I figured she was giving me the next set of instructions. “Lisa, I need you in the office for a minute. Mrs. Roberts will cover your class.” Her smile was wrong. My reply was “No. I’m not going with you.” Every part of my body responded and began to shut out the world. “Some men need to see you in the office,” she replied as her eyes filled with tears. I collapsed screaming in the hall. They must have prepared for my response because I remember being picked up by Coach Boone and carried across the hall to the assistant principals office. Two Marines came and knelt to formally tell me Matthew had been killed. I kept saying, “Please tell me he was just hurt.”
Nurse Laurie was on her knees in front of me asking what she could do. I said I needed Sharon Brookshire and something to keep me from going deep into the black hole to which I was quickly disappearing. The rest is a blur.
I know they called my husband and somehow I got home. My husband was just called and told on the phone. My oldest daughter was told by her husband and my youngest daughter was met in the halls of the Naval Academy by chaplains. Gulfstream sent a plane to get my daughter at the Naval Academy and arrangements were made to get my daughter and her family home from Washington State. I sequestered myself in my home not wanting to see the world beyond my front door.
The community came to me. Sharon Brookshire was at the school as soon as they called her. I guess I knew immediately that I was a member of a group no one wishes to belong to; mothers who lose children. I needed to see someone who has survived the death of a child. Her presence gave me strength. She helped get the word out. Matt and Katie Brookshire’s friends created a Facebook page. Then fellow mourners began to come to my home.
People came from my school, my church and all the churches in the community. Fellow workers came from Gulfstream and my husbands Navy friends from far away. Matthew’s friends came from all over the country. My daughters friends came. Former students of mine came. The day before Matthew’s body came home my husband gently told me I needed to get in the car to see what the community had done. He only drove me through our neighborhood. Flags and signs honored him. Jody Laing created a banner that let people know this neighborhood helped raise my boy.
The next day we were driven to the airport to pick him up. The community and beyond lined up for 17 miles to the airport!
Richmond Hill came out and packed the streets as he returned home. Mourners came to support us for hours until they finally said enough because we were exhausted. The next day, the church filled and poured out the doors.
Brianne Yontz created the brochure for his funeral. Lee Ergle, Matthew’s beloved teacher and mentor memorialized him ending with, “and Matthew dearly Loved Richmond Hill.” The community choirs combined to sing “In Christ Alone.” Songs he loved and sang in church growing up were sung to honor him. His friends from high school and the Naval Academy carried him out for his final day in Richmond Hill and to head to the Naval Academy for his internment.
I returned to Richmond Hill. Nothing was the same except the city of Richmond Hill never stopped showing it cared. The principals from my school came and sat with me until paperwork was completed for my early retirement. I’ll be forever grateful to them. The city honored Matthew by naming the road to our new county building after him and Doug Bean created the beautiful sign for it. Theresa came home from Japan to receive a plaque honoring Matthew on Veterans Day. Initial donations seeded the yearly Capt. Matthew Freeman Memorial Scholarship given to a graduate of RHHS. With the help of dear friends, the mayor, the schools, our military bases and so many others from the community, I started “Pens and Paper for Peace” which enabled me to send 16,000 pounds of school supplies to our men and women serving in Iraq and Afghanistan to give to the children. When it became too difficult to get supplies the the children, I created scholarships for Siblings of the Fallen and Combat Related Suicide.
The following year I started “Matthew Bears” that has made over 700 teddy bears for families of the Fallen and Combat Related Suicide with the help of seamstresses across the country.
I can’t believe it’s been 10 years. The messages and Facebook posts tell me the community still mourns his loss and supports our family. With so many large organizations duplicating my mission, I’d like to wind down The Matthew Freeman Project by adding The Hershel Woody Williams Gold Star Monument to J.F. Gregory Park honoring our community for all they do for the military and their families.
Because of the community of Richmond Hill, I smile, I laugh, I love and live as I honor my son’s legacy. To all of those I mentioned above I say may God bless Richmond Hill and as Matthew said in his last journal entry,” let it remain a beacon of light to the rest of the country.”