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Families of helicopter attack find strength in each other

By DIANNA CAHN | The Virginian-Pilot | Published: August 4, 2013

The first wave of shock already had passed: That moment at the front door when they knew they'd just opened it to tragedy.

A helicopter was shot down. All 38 on board dead - mostly Americans. Your husband. Your son.

Days later, Keri Mills stood with 29 families at Dover Air Force Base - each in their own internal hell - watching the boxes come down the ramp.

Which one of those was Matt? So many boxes. So many men gone. So many people standing beside her, as lost and broken as she was.

It hit her then that she never would see her husband again. Or pick out his wonderful laugh in a room full of people.

"Everybody was in such a state," said Kathy Tumilson, whose son, Jon, was among the dead. "Each in their own bubble."

Memorial by memorial, the magnitude of the tragedy became real: 30 Americans, 22 of them in naval special operations, all lost together on Aug. 6, 2011 - the single deadliest day for Americans in the Afghanistan war.

The tragedy left a giant hole in the close-knit and secretive Virginia Beach SEAL community, where 20 of the victims were based.

SEALs are notoriously closed-mouthed. They are warriors who live on the edge in service and share a rare and private brotherhood. Their training, known as BUDS, is famous for weeding out all but the strongest - mentally and physically.

In the wake of their deaths, the grieving closed ranks. And slowly, a brotherhood forged by a secretive community of men transitioned into a sisterhood of strong women they left behind.

They sustained each other in mourning.

"We've been able to bounce off each other. ... It made us feel normal," Mills said.

They found strength reflected in each other and realized their husbands had seen this in them from the start.

"They chose us because they knew we had the strength to carry on," said Angelina Campbell, whose husband, Christopher, was on the helicopter.

Jon wanted to be married so badly, Tumilson added. But it was hard to find a girl who measured up.

"You women are all so strong," she said. "I think that is why Jon was single. He had a checklist."

They shared laughter and memories.

The Tumilson home in Iowa became a place for Jon's SEAL buddies to visit. His bedroom still is filled with SEAL paraphernalia and books he'd consumed as a teen; the story he wrote about a SEAL when he was 15; the countless drawings of frogs. He was always going to be a frogman.

And a photograph of Jon on deployment, posing naked on leopard-print sheets his mother sent him (he'd asked for flannel), strategically holding a stuffed bear his mother had sent him. He wore only a big grin.

Now, Kathy finds herself with a whole family of Navy SEALs. Recently, two of the guys called to tell her they were back after a deployment.

"I cried," she said. "I didn't know how worried I was."

Chris Campbell got the nickname "Boots" because he was once caught sniffing out the worst smelling boots on a deployment. So he created a three-part series of photographs, Campbell said.

In the first, he's crawling across the floor to a pair of boots in a box with a trap-door. In the second, he's reaching his hand through the trap, and in the third, his head is inside the box.

"He was a practical joker," she said.

But Chris also was humble. He would tell people he chartered boats for a living.

Even when the other guy would puff up like a peacock and say, "I'm a lawyer," the Navy SEAL wouldn't bite, Campbell said.

Matt liked to say he owned a landscaping business, Mills said. He liked his hair long and dressed like a lumberjack. But with his friends and family, he showed his heart of gold.

With them, she said, he talked about his job as a commando fighting for his country.

"He wanted them to know why," she said. "The world didn't have to know."

Tuesday will mark two years since the crash. Babies are now toddlers.

Mills and Campbell have grown close. "She was just out in California hanging out with my mom," Mills said.

The Tumilsons came from Iowa this week to visit the community, especially Senior Chief Torrie Rogers, one of Jon's closest friends.

Last year, Rogers started the Extortion 17 Memorial Ride, drawing a thousand motorcycles along Dam Neck Road in Virginia Beach. The event, named after the helicopter crew's call sign, was repeated Saturday, raising money for the 31 Heroes Project that supports families of the fallen.

Before the event, Mills watched a video of Matt riding down a slide on a burlap sack, their son, Cash, firmly in his arms.

"Cash is 8 to 9 months, and he's a 230-pound man holding a baby and sliding on a burlap sack," Mills said. "At the bottom, Matt is just cracking up.... It's one of those things I am so glad I have on video."

Bagpipers from the Boston Police Department played "Amazing Grace." A team of SEALs was in Boston training them when news of the crash reached them two years ago. The Boston Police Gaelic Column of Pipes and Drums has been part of the memorial since.

Campbell was composed until a singer performed the national anthem. "The national anthem always gets me," she said with a laugh.

Then a thousand motorcycles roared as they filed out of the parking lot and onto the open road.

Navy SEALs conduct special operations urban combat training in an undated photo.
MERANDA KELLER/U.S. DEFENSE DEPARTMENT

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