FORT CAMPBELL, Ky. — Just seven months after her 23-year-old son was killed in a helicopter crash in Iraq, and with three months left before her husband returns from his deployment to Afghanistan, Sheila Patton isn’t facing the holidays feeling sorry for herself.
Instead, she’s found a calling: helping to bring inspiration and hope to families of fallen soldiers at this post that’s suffered a heavy toll in combat losses since the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks.
Patton, the wife of Army Command Sgt. Major Gregory Patton, command sergeant major for the 101st Airborne Division’s 3rd Brigade Combat Team, feels the pain of her son’s death as if it had happened yesterday.
Army Staff Sgt. James R. “Jimmy” Patton, died April 18 during a combat mission in Tikrit, Iraq. The 3rd Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment soldier, based at Fort Benning, Ga., was serving his seventh overseas deployment since 9/11 that had included two previous tours to Iraq and four deployments to Afghanistan.
His mother learned of his death when a casualty assistance officer drove up to her in-laws’ home in Indiana while she was visiting to celebrate her father’s birthday. Patton had every reason to feel alone at the time. Her children were at home near Fort Campbell and her daughter-in-law was with family in her native Ecuador, still unaware of Jimmy’s death. Her husband, who deployed to Afghanistan just two months earlier, had flown to Iraq to accompany his son’s body to Dover Air Force Base, Del. Yet from the moment the notification officials delivered the heart-wrenching news, Patton said, she felt embraced by the Fort Campbell community. It continued as the family made plans to lay Jimmy to rest at Arlington National Cemetery, and after the senior Patton left just a week after the funeral to rejoin his fellow “Rakkasan Battalion” soldiers in Afghanistan’s Khost province. “The support I have been given through the Fort Campbell community has been absolutely amazing,” she said. “They have been phenomenal in rallying to support my family. It’s been an absolutely heart-warming experience.”
Patton said she cries for her son every day and still feels the devastation of his loss. But she has also developed a sense of peace about his death that’s helped her cope and begin healing. “I am a proud momma of a soldier who died fighting for his country and doing what he loved doing,” she said. “If he had to die before us that is the only way we could ever have accepted his death: to smile and be proud and honored that God thought enough of my son to make him a hero.”
Patton said she comforts herself “knowing God took my son for a bigger mission, because his mission on Earth was complete.” Meanwhile, Patton has found a new mission as well: reaching out to other families struggling with their own losses as senior advisor to Fort Campbell’s Survivor Outreach Services program. The program is part of the Army’s effort to help and stay connected with families of the fallen.
As a Gold Star Mother and wife of a soldier serving in harm’s way, Patton recognizes she’s in a unique position to comfort families of the fallen. “I have been where they are, and I can share what they are feeling because I am going through what they are going through, almost simultaneously,” she said. Patton shared her story as keynote speaker at a recent candlelight vigil honoring Fort Campbell’s fallen. As the crowd began to disperse, one mother who was having a particularly difficult time dealing with her own son’s combat death approached Patton. “You have given me hope,” she told Patton. “I just want you to know that.”
Patton said she’s not quite sure where she gets the strength to carry out what she’s come to see as a personal calling. “I guess God and Jimmy have given me the strength to do this,” she said. “Jimmy has a bigger mission in heaven, and I think this is my mission on Earth, to be able to share his story and offer hope to other families. “If I can give one person hope that they can look at the loss of their soldier in a different light,” she added, “then that is one person I have helped.”
U.S. Department of Defense
Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense (Public Affairs)