The sounds of Lee Greenwood's "God Bless the USA" filled the Frewsburg American Legion at midnight on Nov. 13. The local chapter of the Blue Star Mothers had just finished up a fundraiser. Most of the group of military mothers and supporters joined arms and belted out the lyrics together, but Kathy Collver broke down.
With her two sons serving in the U.S. military, Collver began to shed tears. Another Blue Star Mother came to her aid then, assisting her through the difficult time.
As Christmas approached, Collver knew more difficulties were on the horizon.
Kathy Collver is pictured with her two sons, Pfc. Derek Fye, left, and 2nd Lt. Vincent Fye. Neither of her sons will be home today for Christmas.
Susan Rowley, president of the local chapter of the Blue Star Mothers, first learned of the group at a parade like the one pictured here. Since, she has found strength from her fellow group members.
On Dec. 3 in Frewsburg, the local chapter of the Blue Star Mothers packed 263 boxes of Christmas-care packages for soldiers serving the U.S. overseas.
"Our house will be different this Christmas season," wrote Collver in a letter to The Post-Journal. "Where once my daughter, Elyse, could dote over her two younger brothers with countless Christmas hugs, now she must send her love in 'cake-in-a-jar' military care packages and Christmas wishes uttered through crackly phone lines or Skype messages."
Collver's two sons, 2nd Lt. Vincent Fye and Pfc. Derek Fye, won't be home today to celebrate the holiday with their mother and the rest of their family. Vincent, 22, of the U.S. Army, will spend the day in Afghanistan, while Derek, a 19-year-old U.S. Marine, will spend the day training at a military camp in North Carolina.
Talking about her feelings proved too difficult for Collver. She chose to write them down instead, noting her emotions will likely change between sadness, fear, loneliness, apprehension, pride and joy today.
''Pray for us, the families of these brave men and women, as we support them in their chosen path, for indeed we walk this road with them.''
mother of two soldiers away from home
She explained her feelings of pride and joy.
"America is made of pretty ordinary folks. The very freedom that allows ordinary people to achieve extraordinary things is in part what makes America so great," she wrote. "Thankfully some of these ordinary people have chosen to wear the uniform of a U.S. military man or woman. Our military personnel will be the first to say, 'It's not just about individual gain or accomplishment. It's about honor and courage and morality; it's about character and the blood of those who have gone before to bring us these great freedoms.' If ever there was a time for greatness, no matter how singular the effort, it is now."
Cecelia Nosel's son Cpl. Travis Wilcox won't attend any local Christmas gatherings today. Instead, he'll continue to serve the U.S. in Afghanistan, leaving his mother, wife and infant daughter without his presence this holiday season.
"It's stressful," said Nosel. "When my son got deployed, I thought and talked too much about it. I thought something was wrong with me, but this group (the Blue Star Mothers) understands."
Nosel, whose husband died unexpectedly in 2010, felt lonely at times without her son around. Thankfully, her daughter-in-law Alexis, granddaughter Maddie and daughter Anna have been around to help keep her company and to provide support.
"I am grateful that even though Alexis is a hometown girl also, and has all of her own family here in Chautauqua County, she chose to stay here with me," she said. "We are grateful for the little things each day, like Maddie's smile. Those little things can get us through one day at a time."
Nosel said God, family, friends and a storybook recorded by her son before he left have provided the family comfort in recent months. "Maddie can hear his voice every day, and we can keep him in our lives each day he is gone.
Susan Rowley, president of the local Blue Star Mothers chapter, won't see her son, Joint Tactical Air Controller Matthew Rowley, today, but he planned to return to American soil at some point this weekend.
He left Afghanistan earlier this week, landing in Germany on Wednesday. He hoped to see his wife and 2-year-old son in a U.S. airport on Christmas Eve or today.
"It's just an answer to all of our prayers," said Mrs. Rowley, who saw her son in a Maryland airport last time he flew home for the holidays. "For three and a half hours, we welcomed soldiers home. When we saw our boy, it was just amazing. It was just wonderful."
Matthew, who re-enlisted in the U.S. Air Force after serving for six years, may only have a few hours to spend with his wife and son before he must travel to his new station in Colorado.
"We won't be able to see him this year," Mrs. Rowley said. "When he used to come home, it was here. It's wonderful that he's married and happy. They need some alone time together. Just knowing that he's home and safe makes me happy."
She planned to speak with her son on the phone today and to see him in January.
When Esther Bailey first attended a Blue Star Mothers meeting, she knew the group could help her deal with the loneliness of not having her sons, Monte and Clifford, around. The two young men serve their nation in the U.S. Army.
"I went to my first meeting, and it was as if I had belonged for years - not just minutes," she said.
When Mrs. Rowley's son was first deployed, she felt lost. Then, she found the Blue Star Mothers, spotting them in Mayville's Fourth of July parade.
"I got so excited I followed them down the road along the sidewalk until I could copy the website down," she said. "I contacted them and joined at their next meeting."
Her son's fourth deployment overall and second trip to Afghanistan was no easier at first for Mrs. Rowley, but her abilities to cope have improved, especially with the support of her fellow Blue Star Mothers.
"Watching them go off to war is the most difficult time in your life. How do you let go of your child, even if they are an adult, when you don't know if you may ever see them again? If they have made the very honorable decision to join our military and they have taken the oath of enlistment, you don't have a choice," she said. "You put a smile on your face, you hug them harder than you have every hugged them before, and you watch them go. Then you fall apart."
During her son's first tour overseas, Nosel was obsessed. She'd read articles and watch news reports on military casualties overseas, worrying about her son.
Now, she doesn't feel quite the same way. She said her daughter-in-law communicates with Travis frequently via email and text message.
"Where he's at, we can't hear him on the phone, so that's hard," Nosel said. "It's easy to separate yourself and isolate yourself. It's easy to get obsessed. Alexis spends a lot of time getting out of the house. We both deal with it with exercise. That helps with the stress."
For Nosel, her faith in God and involvement with the Blue Star Mothers have also helped.
For Collver, a sense of pride and satisfaction in her sons has been the key.
"Will I miss my sons this Christmas? You bet I will," she wrote. "Be thankful for yourself that you are enjoying these freedoms in a nation, however flawed, where young men and women still choose the weight of this honor. Pray for us, the families of these brave men and women, as we support them in their chosen path, for indeed we walk this road with them. Together, let us pray for their protection, safe return and contentment, not just for this day, but always."