When Sgt. Kyle A. Colnot’s life ended on April 22, 2006, in military action near Baghdad, Iraq, his sister Kelly Luisi’s life immediately changed in two significant ways: Kelly became a member of a group that no one wants to join, becoming Gold Star Family member; and she marked Kyle’s death as a milestone in her own life by starting an outreach to the military that continues today.
One fact quickly became apparent to Kelly. “I didn’t realize until I experienced it myself,” she says, “the difficult aftermath that families face during one of the most heart-breaking times of their lives.” She says although she knew little about the military, it became obvious that the government could not handle all the needs of these families.
“Here’s an example of what we experienced as we looked for ways to help,” Kelly says. “Government funeral assistance is provided to two siblings in the immediate family and one set of grandparents. What about families like mine with parents, three surviving siblings and multiple sets of grandparents. How do you tell Aunt Judy she can’t come because she doesn’t have the means?”
On its way to Kyle’s funeral service the family made a pact to continue to serve these families in his name.
“Our Fallen Soldier” (www.ourfallensoldier.com)
The family’s initial efforts remain today at www.ourfallensoldier.com established in 2006 Using the proceeds from Kyle’s insurance policy, the family began giving small grants, working with Fort Hood, Texas and Gold Star Family groups.
As word spread, OFS received request for help. People started contacting the organization through Fort Hood, Texas. For example, a fallen soldier from the East Coast was to be buried where his mother lived in Arkansas. But his father, who had never flown, needed to get there from Maryland. OFS provided a bus ticket and payment for a hotel stay. It was these simple, necessary needs that the organization could provide to soften the blow among needy family members.
Fortunately, the number of war casualties diminished as the war effort did and the Our Fallen Soldiers site has evolved to become a memorial website that continues to honor these heroes.
Our Heroes’ Journey (www.ourheroesjourney.com)
As a natural progression, Kelly and her team began supporting wounded warriors, working with a special battalion at Camp Pendleton that was established to help rehabilitate the wounded while they continued to remain on active duty in order to maintain the benefits they might have lost otherwise.
That outreach started with “whatever we could do,” including basic, non-monetary activities, says Kelly: bringing cookies, hanging out, making fleece blankets, field trips, appointment transportation, turkeys at Thanksgiving, all aimed at making life a little easier following the warriors’ hospital stays.
Kelly and her colleagues also began building an expertise at speeding and easing the process of obtaining help, securing needed services and doing whatever was necessary to assist the soldiers to meet their own goals of returning to active duty.
Homeless Veterans of San Diego (www.homelessveteransofsandiego.com)
Volunteering for a traditional kind of event for veterans marked the next milestone in Kelly’s outreach mission: a North County San Diego “stand-down,” a three-day event aimed at providing services such as haircuts, showers, clothing and access to other support.
“I spent all three days focusing on these homeless soldiers,” says Kelly. “But at the end of the stand-down it became apparent that, as positive and beneficial as the experience was, there remained no next step. The veterans just dispersed back into the community without the long-term fix that they needed.”
That realization altered the mission that Kelly and her team were pursuing.