It’s been 12 years since Darlene Kelly got a knock on the door that would change her life forever.
“When the phone rang, I always hoped it was my son,” she said. “But the knock on the door… you know it’s bad.”
Kelly’s son, Shawn Dunkin, was killed by an improvised explosive device, or IED, in Baghdad, just days before his 26th birthday. Kelly knew it was always a possibility that having a son in the Army means he might not come home, but she said she knew it had been his dream to serve his country.
At first, Kelly said she didn’t think she would survive, she had lost her baby, she said, and that’s someone she’ll never get back. But in 2009, she learned about the national support system, American Gold Star Mothers, for mothers who had lost their children serving in the military.
The only problem, though, was that the closest chapter was in Alexandria. So, Kelly and another mother from the Hampton Roads area started their own chapter with only seven moms at the first meeting.
Since then the group has grown to 25 members looking for support from others going through a similar experience.
“We honestly don’t want any new members, because that means a tragedy has happened,” she said. “But at our meeting we can be laughing about something and turn around and everyone is bawling their eyes out. Everyone grieves differently.”
When a grieving mother first comes to the group, Kelly said members try not to push them to share too much. She said some only want to say their child’s name and birthday and some want to tell the world about the child they’ve lost.
Kelly, who lives in Portsmouth and is president of the Hampton Roads Chapter, said at first she didn’t know what to expect from the group but after a decade, she has connected with women from all over Hampton Roads who are grieving their children.
For Kelly, one of the most memorable parts of the group was when one of the soldiers who was with her son when he died came to visit. Dunkin had been in armored truck with five other men when the IED exploded. Only two of the men survived, including Shilo Harris, who suffered severe burns that caused the loss of his ears, part of his nose and three fingers.
Since that day in 2007, Harris took his tragedy and turned it into inspiration, traveling the country as a motivational speaker. Kelly said she hadn’t heard from Harris after the incident but a few years ago he came to speak at a meeting of the Hampton Roads Gold Star Mothers.
Following that, Harris spoke in Texas where he asked the mothers of the three soldiers who died that day to join him. Kelly said she felt better knowing she was with someone who had been with her son when he died.
“It’s not a pain that ever goes away,” she said. “We have to cope but we want to share the memories of our children and he’s part of that.”
It has been more than decade since Dunkin was killed, but Kelly said one thing she has learned from the Gold Star Mothers group is that while the pain never goes away, people can still survive.
“We have had some moms come in from Vietnam that still have rough days,” she said. “We have felt the day-one pain, the year-one pain and, in my case, the 12-year pain.”
To learn more about the American Gold Star Mothers, visit their website.