Mom, children cope with loss
Raised as a Southern gal, Mary Ramsey had to go all the way to Alaska to find her Soldier.
Some 20 years later, she lost her Soldier in the war in Afghanistan.
Ramsey and her two children – Bradley, 8, and Megan, 6 – are now searching for their own place in life, learning how to live without their Soldier and how to be happy despite the tears that now lace their memories of family times.
These days, Ramsey and her children regularly visit the gravesite of their Soldier – Alabama National Guard Capt. Waid "Chip" Ramsey – in Maple Hill Cemetery. Their Soldier was killed Aug. 4, 2011, in a small-arms fight when his unit was attacked in Afghanistan’s Paktika province.
"We talk about Chip all the time," Ramsey said. "Bradley and his dad were inseparable. Megan was a daddy’s girl. He is still very much a part of their lives."
As a college student back in 1991, Ramsey traveled to Alaska to live with her sister and her husband for a year. While there, she met, dated and fell in love with Chip Ramsey, who was an enlisted active duty Soldier.
"My dad joked with me that I went all the way to Alaska to meet an Alabama boy," Ramsey recalled.
Eventually, the two moved back to the South, Ramsey to her hometown of Chattanooga and Chip Ramsey, who had taken an early out from the Army, to Arab, where his father had moved after marrying his stepmom. The couple married and settled into a life of work and school, both graduating from college with accounting degrees, she from the University of Alabama-Huntsville and he from Athens State University.
"I encouraged him to get an accounting job with a defense contractor like I had done," Ramsey said. "But he was great with spreadsheets and formulas, and he ended up in contracts and pricing for a defense contractor."
Chip Ramsey, who had been an infantryman with the Army, continued his military career in the National Guard, serving in units in Cullman; Cleveland, Tenn.; and Arab. He left the Guard for a while only to rejoin with a Huntsville unit, and then attend Officers Candidate School at Fort Benning, Ga. After a deployment to Afghanistan, he joined Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 20th Special Forces Group (Airborne) in Birmingham, where he was a company commander.
"He just loved serving. He loved his Soldiers. He loved it all and wouldn’t have chosen anything else," Ramsey said.
"I remember the first time he was getting ready to deploy, I asked him ‘What if you get killed?’ He said ‘If I do, I do. I’m not afraid to die,’" Ramsey said.
Sadly, through the years and the births of their two children, the couple grew apart. In February 2011, they divorced and Ramsey moved into her own home just a few blocks from where they lived as a couple. The split was amicable, and the two easily shared responsibilities for their children.
"We were trying to get everything settled. Chip decided to stay in our home for a while, so I still had a lot of stuff there and so did the kids," Ramsey said.
"He wasn’t supposed to have to go on a deployment. He didn’t do any of the pre-deployment training. He didn’t know until the last minute that he was even going. He told me ‘I should be there for my men.’"
Soon after the April 27, 2011, tornadoes in North Alabama, Chip Ramsey began preparations to deploy with Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 20th Special Forces Group. He shipped in mid-June, but managed to stay in contact with her and the children through phone calls and Skype.
"On the last call that we had with him, Bradley said ‘My dad wants me to go in the Army.’ The last words his dad ever said to him were ‘Bud, you do whatever makes you happy,’" Ramsey recalled.
"Chip was in Special Forces and he was training Afghanistan troops. He told me several times that it wasn’t as safe a place as he thought it was going to be."
About six weeks after Chip Ramsey deployed, the worst happened.
"I knew something was up," Ramsey said. "He always called at 8:30 at night. On this night, I was putting the kids to bed and realized we had not heard from Chip. I had left my cell phone downstairs and when I went to get it I saw the clock on the stove and it said 8:30. Later, I found out that was around the same time it happened. Of course, he never called."
The next day, Ramsey took her children with her to work because they were out of their summer school daycare program for a week before the school year started.
"They were at work with me when I found out," she said. "The security people called to see if I was there. I knew. I just had this feeling. I left the kids in my office with a co-worker and I went downstairs to the lobby. As soon as I saw the two Soldiers I knew."
Unbeknown to her at the time, while she was being told about Chip Ramsey’s death, Bradley was asking one of her co-workers about heaven."He wanted to know what happens when you go to heaven. He sensed something. Just the week before, he had started talking out of the blue about his dad being dead. Somehow he just sensed something was happening," Ramsey said.
Mustering all the strength she had, Ramsey took her children home and, with the help of a family friend, she told the children what happened to their dad. The next few days were filled with a trip to Delaware to receive his body and a funeral in Huntsville with full military honors attended by family, friends, servicemembers who knew Chip Ramsey, and hundreds of mourners, including Huntsville Mayor Tommy Battle, U.S. Rep. Mo Brooks and state Rep. Bill Holtzclaw.
Now, just over a year since their loss, Ramsey and her children are still struggling to get their footing without their Soldier in their lives. Ramsey worries about her children so much that she has left her career as a director of accounting for a defense contractor to be a stay-at-home mom for her children. Bradley, who was once happy-go-lucky and carefree, is now quiet and withdrawn. Megan has seemed less distressed by the loss of her dad, bouncing back with a joy that is often a blessing to her mother.
"I remember before school started that year, I was upset that Chip would miss her first day of kindergarten. Little did I know that he would miss the rest of her life," Ramsey said.
"School started the Monday after Chip was killed. I had decided to send the kids to their first day of school. I was crying that morning, and Megan said to me ‘Mommy, why are you crying? Daddy is in a good place. He’s in heaven.’"
Both children have enjoyed recent Veterans Day events where their father was recognized. They attended the Veterans Day Dinner, where they led the Pledge of Allegiance, and the Veterans Day Breakfast, where they, their mom, and their grandfather and step-grandmother were recognized as a Gold Star family.
"It’s tough to pull Bradley out, and these kinds of things do seem to help him," Ramsey said. "He likes to hear people talking about his dad and he loves getting the coins that officers give him. He loves hearing that his dad is a hero.
"But after all the excitement and as we’re on the way home from these things, I will see Bradley rubbing his eyes, blinking and looking out the window. I know he is thinking about his dad and how much he misses him."
Dedicating her time to her children is important to Ramsey not only because of their loss but also because there is not much other family support to rely on. Ramsey’s father has passed away and her mother is suffering from the paralyzing symptoms of Guillain-Barre. Chip Ramsey’s mother also has medical issues, and his father and stepmom, who live in Arab, only see them occasionally.
"It feels like Chip’s death was only yesterday," Ramsey said. "We’re in the same exact place we were a year ago. At first, I didn’t want to leave my job because I didn’t want to be at home to think about it. Friends tried to get me to take time off, but I didn’t. It’s hard to give up your job when you are a career-oriented person.
"But this decision to be at home was ultimately about my kids. I need this time to help them heal, to help us heal. Chip always wanted me to be a stay-at-home mom anyway. I was cleaning out some emails one day and I found a bunch that were from Chip. That was my sign that I needed to be at home for a while."
The family has recognized important family events – Chip Ramsey’s birthday, the anniversary of his death – quietly, with balloon releases at his gravesite. Often, on their visits there, Bradley will leave a Happy Meal toy at his dad’s gravesite and he recently left a ceramic turkey for Thanksgiving. On Veterans Day this year, they participated in a program at the children’s school – Hampton Cove Elementary – where a tree was planted in their dad’s memory. Bradley wrote a letter to his dad on Veterans Day thanking him for his service and signing it "Your Son."
"Since Chip was killed, Megan has really come out of her shell. It’s weird how life events change us. For Bradley, he has gotten introverted and quiet, and clingy. He still goes to counseling," Ramsey said. "I tell the children I don’t want them to forget their dad. He was a huge part of their lives and he was so proud of them."
They have not yet participated in any of the Survivor Outreach Services programs offered at Redstone Arsenal, but Ramsey said she wants to begin doing more things that bring her children into contact with other children who have lost their Soldier.
At home, Ramsey is now trying to fill the role of both mom and dad for her children.
"Chip was so happy-go-lucky. He was honest, dependable and trustworthy, and I want his children to know that. He always had a smile on his face and he was happy with whatever life gave him. He was truly genuine and a kind man, and he loved kids," she said.
"I strive to be more like Chip was. I was always the strong one, the disciplinarian. He was like a kid himself. I used to tell the kids they were so lucky to be growing up with a dad like him. Little did I know … I hope they grow up to be good people and live a happy life. I don’t want this to be a cloud over their lives. I hope they learn from what has happened and that they go on to have happy lives."