A living legacy

Gold Star Mothers state President Monica McNeal of Edmonds devotes her life to veterans
By Brian Soergel | Feb 08, 2018
Photo by: Brian Soergel Monica McNeal holds a portrait of her son, given to her by Michael Reagan. “There’s an awareness of what a veteran’s value is in Edmonds,” she said.

Eric Levi Ward may be gone, but his legacy and spirit lives on with his mother, Monica McNeal.

She is president of the Washington state chapter of American Gold Star Mothers, a nonprofit organization that no one would willingly want to be part of. Its members share one thing in common – the death of a son or daughter serving in the armed forces.

If you attended the Veterans Day ceremony at the Edmonds Veterans Plaza, you may have spotted the 57-year-old, who relocated to Edmonds recently with her husband. She was hard to miss, as she and other members dressed head-to-toe in their traditional white uniforms. They handed out commemorative pins to all Vietnam War veterans.

I met McNeal last week at the plaza, where she emerged from her car with a cellphone to her ear. She was deep into her day job with Four Block, a nonprofit organization helping veterans transition from college or from active duty to the civilian workforce.

She would tell me more about her work with Four Block, but first I wanted to know a little about Eric.

In his DNA

After Eric Ward graduated from Mount Si High School in Snoqualmie in 2008, he promised his mother he’d go to college.

But first, he told her, he felt he had to serve as a Marine grunt and work his way up to officer. McNeal understood his motivation. After all, he would be a fourth-generation Marine, following in his father, grandfather and great-grandfather’s footsteps.

“I reminded him that we have a war going on, and he said, ‘Mom, I know, that’s why I have to go.’ So he had that DNA to serve.”

Since he lived west of the Mississippi, Eric was due to attend boot camp at Camp Pendleton in Southern California. But he insisted on training on the East Coast, as his father Steven did.

“He was able to pull some strings and attend boot camp at Parris Island,” McNeal said, referring to the Marine recruit depot in South Carolina. “He did not want to be a Hollywood marine. Are you getting a picture of this kid? West of the Mississippi, they’re called Hollywood marines.”

But Eric did want to return to SoCal one day.

“His long-term goal was to retire as a Marine, move to L.A. and live on the beach with a dog named Trigger,” McNeal said.

Eric was assigned to 2nd Battalion, 2nd Marine Regiment, 2nd Marine Division, II Marine Expeditionary Force, from Camp Lejeune, North Carolina. His life ended Feb. 21, 2010, while supporting combat operations in Afghanistan’s Helmand province.

“From the day he graduated from boot camp to the day he was killed, he was a Marine for 16 months,” McNeal said.

Her eyes grow moist as she recalls that terrible day.

“He was on a convoy mission when one of the humvees broke down. Everyone had to get out of their vehicles and secure the area. But then a sandstorm came, and Eric and his friend Adam Peak went to a building to get away from the storm. At that point, Eric stepped on an IED.”

An improvised explosive device.

Eric was 19. Peak was killed as well. He was 25.

Finding – and giving – support

In 2010, Monica McNeal lived in another world. She had a home in Redmond, but traveled around the country as part of her fashion industry job. She was in New York when two Marines broke the awful news.

Her family joined her at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware to welcome Eric home in a dignified transfer, a procedure honoring the return of the remains of soldiers who’ve died in service to their country.

When McNeal returned home to Redmond, Gold Star Mothers (who frequently use the colloquial “Gold Star Moms”) were on her couch to help in whatever way they could.

“I didn’t know what Gold Star Moms were, but I immediately knew I wanted to be part of this organization,” she said.

She became vice-president, and has served as state chapter president – a volunteer position – for the past three years.

Although some states have several chapters, Washington has only one, which means McNeal travels to all corners of the state for veterans’ ceremonies, and to set up what she calls “coffee talks,” where she meets mothers and urges them to become involved. When asked, she’ll tell new members about the history of the group.

The genesis of the Gold Star Moms came 100 years ago through Grace Seibold, whose son George was killed in action in France near the end of World War I.

She began an informal support group in Washington, D.C., with other mothers who had lost their sons in the war, naming her group after the gold star families hung in their windows in honor of their deceased veterans.

Ten years later, American Gold Star Mothers was officially established.

McNeal said members first began wearing trademark white clothing at President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s request. It was the tradition for family members to wear black bands around their arms in honor of a fallen soldier; Roosevelt felt Gold Star Mothers wearing all white would stand out at any event they attended.

During and after World War II, a conflict that undoubtedly affected every person and community in the country, the work of Gold Star Mothers became more well-known. Families would hang service flags in windows, with blue stars signifying sons or daughters in the war. The blue stars became gold upon the death of a soldier.

Today, the group is open to any mother who has lost a son or daughter killed during military service, whether they were killed in action or not, as well as those who are missing in action. There is some tension, McNeal admits, between mothers of those killed in action and mothers whose sons or daughters were killed in other incidents, such as an accident on base.

In addition, membership is not open to mothers whose sons or daughters committed suicide.

Although its been around a long time, many may have first heard about Gold Star Mothers in 2016, when the families of 17 service members who died for the United States demanded an apology from then-presidential candidate Donald Trump. He had said that Ghazala Khan, the Muslim mother of a U.S. soldier who died in Iraq, was not allowed to speak at the Democratic National Convention as her husband Khizr did.

McNeal didn’t want to expressly comment on what many called Trump’s attack on Gold Star Mothers.

“We all just have to stop and think about that this is the cost of war,” she said. “Death. The loss of limbs. The 22 veteran suicides every day. To highlight any one part of it is to alienate someone else. The number of suicides today is greater than the total number of casualties (from the Afghanistan and Iraq wars).”

Settling in Edmonds

After selling her home in Redmond and living for a few years in Kirkland, McNeal and her current husband Adonis moved to Edmonds, where they live in the Point Edwards condos.

Her work with Four Block puts her in good company in Edmonds, a town known for its support for veterans.

Similar career readiness is available at Edmonds Community College in Lynnwood in a resource center run by Navy veteran Chris Szarek.

Also offering services is Michael Schindler, an Edmonds resident who founded Operation Military Family Cares. In his second book, “U.S. Veterans in the Workforce,” he shared success stories and tips for companies as they consider veterans’ resumes.

Edmonds also has an active Veterans of Foreign Wars post, which helped fund much of the money for the Edmonds Veterans Plaza, which debuted this past Memorial Day.

In addition, Edmonds resident Michael Reagan is known nationwide for his drawings of deceased military members, killed in combat, as part of his Fallen Heroes Project. He’s completed more than 5,000, including ones of Eric Ward and his friend Adam Peak.

“There’s an awareness of what a veteran’s value is in Edmonds,” said McNeal, Western regional director for Four Block, which has offices in Seattle and Tacoma.

It features a hybrid, online eight-week career-development course that also meets weekly at corporate partners, including Microsoft, Amazon, T-Mobile, Accenture and Foss Maritime. Academic partners include the University of Washington and Columbia University.

“It’s for veterans who have a college degree or are pursuing one,” McNeal said. “The Tacoma class is almost 80 percent retirees with 20 to 30 years in. I work with the nation’s finest, the top of the Bell Curve. It is unbelievable.”

When not working with Gold Star Mothers or aspiring veterans, McNeal said she’s able to find time to enjoy what Edmonds has to offer.

“I love the small-town feel. I love the restaurants. And it’s a waterfront community, and we love that. Last night, we walked down to 190 Sunset for dinner – then we walked home.”

 

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