You just wanted to hug those kids.
Tommy, 10. A good boy, glowing, talking about his dad’s job, and jets. “Tommy can tell you about any plane around,” said his grandfather, Tom Blake.
Lily, 8. An angel (literally; she’d just danced in the Nutcracker) in a purple snow hat with hearts on it, and sparkly boots. When her brother blabbed about how she sometimes forgets names, she leaned in, stepped on his foot and gave him a look. That little-sister-to-big-brother look.
“She was born 19 days after our boy was killed,” her grandfather said.
“Your daddy helped make you before you were born,” her grandmother, Carole Blake, told her as she gave Lily a squeeze. “He and your mama picked out your name.”
Their mama is Jessica Blake, today a UNMC nursing student. On this morning, her Policy and Leadership class was different. The class – her class – was presenting her with an Honor and Remember flag.
Navy Pilot Lt. Com. Thomas Blake died in an S-3B Viking jet crash in Jacksonville, Fla., in 2005. He was 33. He left behind a wife, a son and a daughter he never got to meet.
The flags are a relatively new movement, started by a father who lost a son. The flags go to the families of U.S. servicemen who died “in the line of duty.” The flags have been officially adopted by 16 states, the charity’s website says, and have been “endorsed” by eight more (Nebraska is among those still being lobbied). They don’t come cheap. The UNMC College of Nursing Policy and Leadership class raised $700 for two.
The other went to Pat Jameson, a nurse, and the mother of Tricia Jameson, who had always wanted to be one.
While she applied to nursing school, Tricia, a staff sergeant, was serving as a full-time health care specialist for the Nebraska National Guard. She carried a medical bag in her car, in case she came across any accidents. She taught combat lifesaver training to Nebraska Guard troops. When an opportunity came up to deploy to Iraq herself, she jumped to the front of the line.
Today, Nick Hornig is a UNMC nursing student. In 2005, he was in the 313th Medical Company (Grounded Ambulance) in the Nebraska Guard, in Iraq, when Tricia showed up, a replacement. He helped her unload her bags.
She was the new kid; he barely knew her. She’d been with them for about three weeks when, out on the Humvee ambulance, she and her driver came across a convoy of Marines that had been hit by an improvised explosive device (IED) attack. There were casualties.
She was racing to the rescue when she was killed by another IED.
“It could have been any of us,” Nick said.
At that time it seemed like something like that was happening every day.
She was engaged to be married. She was 34.
When called to come up to accept her flag, Tricia’s mother took a breath and closed her eyes: steeling herself.
As she stood up there, Nick held his face, rubbed his hands and fought off the tears that welled in his eyes.
He’d barely known Tricia, but he knew this: he’d made it home to nursing school and she had not.
When he heard about the flags, he’d asked his classmates if they could make this happen, for Tricia, and together, they had. Keyon Royster said that Jessica should get one, too. Kate Weidemann organized a bake sale.
With Tricia’s mom, Nick was tender. It could have been him.
It could have been any of them.
Those kids. Tommy, 10, and Lily, 8. Their faces said this was a good day. They got to hear about how great their dad had been. They beamed as they held up that flag.
But those other faces – those of Jessica, and Carole, and Tom, of Tricia’s mom, Pat – those were the ones that all but knocked you to your knees.
The audible sniffles in the auditorium said they were not alone in their tears.
These people had been wounded beyond endurance, and yet, somehow, they endured. There they were. Standing.
And when it came time to click a picture, Jessica brushed the tears, lifted her head, looked right into the camera. And smiled.
Later, in the hallway, Jessica ran into Nick, her nursing school classmate, the guy who had the idea to do this to honor the fallen teammate he’d barely known.
She grabbed his arm. “Thank you,” she said. “That was really cool.”
She laughed at having made something for the bake sale, not yet knowing, at that point, one of the flags was to be for her.
And then, they were late. She was heading back into the classroom and Nick not far behind. They had a test to take. The flag ceremony was over. Quick as that, class was starting again.
Nursing school, much like life, keeps moving forward. And you remember, and smile bravely, and carry on the best you can.