Memorial Day is much more than a beach day with family. We honor and remember on Memorial Day the fallen soldiers who gave all for our freedom. Not just those who died decades ago, but those with families still grieving their unthinkable loss. Kelli Campell, a Marine widow of the late Major Shawn Cambell, shares what we remember on Memorial Day.
This is Part 2 of Kelli’s story. Go here to read Part 1.
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So, there we were in paradise, my children and I, facing the loss of a one-of-a-kind husband and father.
Life as we knew it was over. Plans for our future erased. Nothing would ever be the same.
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I remember our six-year-old, Kate, screaming, “It’s not fair.”
I remember the day our son, Tristan, asked me if our last name would still be Campbell.
I remember the look in my daughter Kenna’s eyes, as her sadness turned to hard bitter anger.
I remember my baby Donovan being our light and joy in even the darkest of those early days. Sweet, innocent Donovan is still a daily source of laughter and fun in our house, but he only has second-hand memories of his Dad.
Very suddenly, we found ourselves packing up to leave our home and everything familiar. At the time I couldn’t see past the hour in front of me, so I simply did the next thing, one breath at a time. I would repeat that to myself — just do the next thing.
My home was filled with family and friends who had come literally from around the globe to be with us. I was never for a moment alone and yet, the future felt so empty, as if the lights had just gone out.
One of the hardest things I’ve ever done in my life was get on that plane without my husband.
He was still out there. And in fact, just a few days later after arriving on the mainland, on my daughter’s seventh birthday, I got the first call. He had been found. At the bottom of the ocean, among the wreckage of two helicopters, he had been found. The whales still swim there, singing over the crash site.
I was notified several times over those following three months that more of Shawn’s remains had been found. It was late April when we finally stood on a rainy tarmac in Houston and watched as a flag-draped casket was lowered from the belly of a plane.
Those months are a blur in my mind now. They were dark but you know what they say, “the darker the sky, the brighter the stars.”
It’s the bright spots that shine now.
The moments when we looked around and said, “Look at what God has done!”
I can honestly say that I experienced joy like I never knew possible. It is deeper, truer now because of sorrow. Our family was crushed but not destroyed. All along the way we watched God send manna for each day. We saw His goodness in the kindness of family and friends and strangers. His presence was so very real in every moment of our suffering, I couldn’t help but feel grateful and for that I couldn’t help but feel joyful.
Job 42:5 says, “My ears had heard of you but now my eyes have seen you.”
Coming Home to Miracles
After losing my partner and best friend, I had no idea what life was supposed to look like anymore. I suddenly found myself living in my parent’s home in Kansas, a Marine’s wife without her Marine and a homeschooling mom without her home. I was lost.
On a Monday morning in March just weeks after losing Shawn, I sat on my parent’s living room floor surrounded by children and library books, begging God for help. On the outside I was calmly reading with my kids but in my head, I was desperately crying out to Jesus to “please show me what to do.”
The phone rang. There was a sweet woman on the line from a classical Christian school, Whitefield Academy, in Kansas City. She spoke to my mom and asked if we might want to come visit, if my three school-age kids would like to finish the year there. There would be no grades, no tuition bill, just an open door and lots of open arms who had heard of my family and were hoping for a chance to love on us during the months ahead.
It felt like a miracle. It was a miracle.
It turned out, my friend, Christy, a fellow Marine pilot’s wife, had made a call. Christy called Folds of Honor, a charity she had heard of that provides scholarships to children and spouses of fallen and disabled military. And Folds of Honor said, “Yes, we’re here. We can help.”
That day, even as I sat there crying out to God, he was already at work.
He literally placed a school and a way to pay for it right there at my feet as I begged for help. He lifted up my eyes and said here is a way, walk in it. Just do the next thing. “Take heart.”
Today all four of my kids are in school at Whitefield Academy. They are together, under one roof being classically educated just as Shawn and I had always wanted.
Light for a New Life
We were handed an anchor when we joined the school. A reason to stay in Kansas. We had this tiny bit of light shed on our future. God knew I could only handle one fragile step at a time and so with a lot of help and support from our new village we soon found a home near our school, we found a church near our home, we found friends, sports teams, music teachers – I planted roses and daffodils — we started a new life.
My gratitude for Folds of Honor and a crazy series of God ordained events, led me to become a speaker for the organization. And speaking led to me becoming the full-time Regional Development Officer for the Kansas City Chapter — a job I am highly underqualified for. This is the path God has laid out saying here is a way, walk in it.
I share my story and the mission of Folds of Honor in the hope that it will allow me to pass on the help I have been given. Like 2 Corinthians 1:4 says, I get to “comfort those in trouble with the comfort I myself received from God.”
It’s not easy for a Marine’s wife to admit she needs help, you know. We’re tough.
The hope and redemption of my beloved Shawn’s story, of my whole family’s story, has been a shining light in the darkness of these past three years.
I know that because of my children’s experiences and because of the example their Dad set for them, they are growing up to be extraordinary, compassionate, wise young people. They are learning to seek and create truth, goodness, and beauty in this world. They absolutely shine.
One day they will find their voices, and as their single parent, it’s up to me to lead the way. I am not strong, I cannot do this. This is not how it was supposed to be.
I can only hope my actions and words point them to their own need for a Savior and remind them over and over that their Heavenly Father loves them. He sees them. He has always been with them and He will show them the way to walk.
John 1 describes Jesus as the light shining in darkness and we have seen this truth in our home. His presence shines.
He hasn’t taken away our sorrow or brokenness, but He has made it into something beautiful and strong.
He has allowed Shawn’s life to shine beyond the grave. And He has answered that long-ago prayer that our family would be a light in the world for His glory. Our story is His story.
So as 1 Peter 4:13 says, “rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed.”
This Memorial Day, I will remember.
I will grieve.
I will say his name (and many others) and I will miss him as I do every day… but I will not despair.
I will rejoice in the beautiful life Shawn Campbell lived so well, in the privilege of having been loved by him, and in the legacy he left behind.
I will look at Tristan, Kenna, Kate and Donovan and know the extremes of peace, hope, love and joy.
This Memorial Day, I will continue to put my trust in my Redeemer.
Kelli Campbell’s late husband, Major Shawn Campbell, was killed in a Marine Corps helicopter collision in Hawaii on January 14, 2016. Kelli serves Folds of Honor as a national speaker and Regional Development Officer for the Kansas City chapter. She is grateful to pass on the support and hope her family was given while honoring the legacy of her late husband and all those who serve our nation.