A knock on the door: How Hampton Roads mothers survive the deaths of their veteran children

(WYDaily/Courtesy of Pixabay)
(WYDaily/Courtesy of Pixabay)

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.

Shawn Dunkin died in February 2007, but his mother, Darlene Kelly has learned to cope and help other mothers survive in the aftermath. (WYDaily/Courtesy Darlene Kelly)
Shawn Dunkin died in February 2007, but his mother, Darlene Kelly has learned to cope and help other mothers survive in the aftermath. (Southside Daily/Courtesy Darlene Kelly)

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.

Darlene Kelly started the Hampton Roads chapter of American Gold Star Moms to find support after her son, Shawn Dunkin, was killed in Baghdad in 2007. (WYDaily/Courtesy Darlene Kelly)
Darlene Kelly started the Hampton Roads chapter of American Gold Star Moms to find support after her son, Shawn Dunkin, was killed in Baghdad in 2007. (Southside Daily/Courtesy Darlene Kelly)

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.

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John Mangalonzo (john@localvoicemedia.com) is the managing editor of Local Voice Media’s Virginia papers – WYDaily (Williamsburg), Southside Daily (Virginia Beach) and HNNDaily (Hampton-Newport News). Before coming to Local Voice, John was the senior content editor of The Bellingham Herald, a McClatchy newspaper in Washington state. Previously, he served as city editor/content strategist for USA Today Network newsrooms in St. George and Cedar City, Utah. John started his professional journalism career shortly after graduating from Lyceum of The Philippines University in 1990. As a rookie reporter for a national newspaper in Manila that year, John was assigned to cover four of the most dangerous cities in Metro Manila. Later that year, John was transferred to cover the Philippine National Police and Armed Forces of the Philippines. He spent the latter part of 1990 to early 1992 embedded with troopers in the southern Philippines as they fought with communist rebels and Muslim extremists. His U.S. journalism career includes reporting and editing stints for newspapers and other media outlets in New York City, California, Texas, Iowa, Utah, Colorado and Washington state.