Memorial Day is so much more than celebrating a long weekend at the beach. When you honor Memorial Day as a Marine widow, it looks much different. Today, it’s a privilege to welcome Kelli Campbell, wife of the late Major Shawn Campbell, USMC sharing how she came to honor Memorial Day as a Marine widow.
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I once prayed that God would use my family to be a light in the world for Jesus Christ, never imagining He might answer that prayer through heart break and suffering.
To know Jesus is to know suffering. And to know Jesus, also, is to know hope.
God was with me when my life was turned upside down on a January night in 2016. My husband, a Marine Corps CH-53 helicopter pilot, died during a nighttime training mission while I slept peacefully believing he would be next to me by morning.
People often describe it as the moment my worst fear as a Marine’s wife came true. But you know, losing Shawn was never my worst fear.
In fact, over eighteen years ago just before we got engaged and he left for Officer Candidate’s School, Shawn came to me with a list of questions written on a yellow legal pad. A list of fears.
The Marine Corps already had his signature on the dotted line and he realized he was asking me to add mine in invisible ink. He wanted to make sure I considered the road ahead.
I don’t remember many of the questions, only that there were a lot of them — Shawn had really thought this through– but there was this one in particular:
“Do you understand that my job might one day take my life?”
We faced that possibility with tears and decided then and there not to live in fear.
We fully believed God was calling us together to marriage and to the Marine Corps, so we never again dwelled on what-ifs. He gave us the words of Psalm 143 and we inscribed the reference on our wedding bands:
“Let the morning bring me word of your unfailing love, for I have put my trust in you.
Show me the way I should go, for to you I entrust my life.
Rescue me from my enemies, Lord, for I hide myself in you.
Teach me to do your will, for you are my God;
may your good Spirit lead me on level ground.”
We were married one week after Shawn’s Quantico graduation that summer of 2000. His voice was still hoarse, he had an ankle the size of a soft-ball, and he was doing push-ups in his sleep. We laughed and we dreamed and we looked forward to whatever was in store.
I know now that fearing the worst wouldn’t have prepared me for it or prevented it, but fear would have kept us from enjoying to the fullest the fifteen years God had planned. They were good, good years.
So why did it have to be this way? Why does such a great loss have to be part of our story — or anyone’s story?
I don’t have an answer for that except that we live in a broken world and life is not fair and suffering on earth is just a guarantee.
We are waiting for justice and restoration, but we are not waiting in vain because we have this very real and true hope. In John 16:33 Jesus tells us himself, “In this world you will have trouble but take heart, I have overcome the world.”
I think that is the gentlest line of scripture in the Bible. I picture Jesus tipping my chin up towards his face full of compassion and understanding, whispering those words, “Take heart.”
On January 14, 2016, my family was home in our little yellow house by the beach with the huge mango tree in the backyard and the geckos in the walls. From our permanently open windows we could hear the ocean waving from the end of the street. Living in paradise really was paradise.
Earlier that week, we said goodbye to my sister and her family who had visited us for the holidays. We had spent an amazing ten days playing and adventuring and showing them all our favorite places on the island.
I know now what an incredible gift from the Lord those days were to my family.
And as can happen on any ordinary day in a household of six, we found ourselves suddenly in the midst of bickering and grumpiness. Even in paradise, kids get tired, attitudes break down, parents lose patience, words become unkind – life gets ugly.
Shawn was dressed in his flight suit, getting ready to head into the squadron to prep for a flight later that night, but he paused. We were in chaos and he wasn’t going to leave us like that. I can still hear his voice calling for everyone to gather in the living room.
There was no lecture, no scolding. He joked with the kids and calmed everyone down, and then he took my hand and prayed.
Just a simple, ordinary moment of family prayer. A collective breath.
I clearly remember him asking God to help us love one another well.
That moment sums up Shawn as a husband and father and leader. He was kind, gentle, and patient. With his simple prayer, he re-instilled peace, he made us smile — he reminded us of who we are.
And then he bounced his two-year-old baby son in the air and hugged the big kids goodbye. He gave me a kiss in the kitchen and said he’d be home in the morning.
And he was. Shawn was Home in Heaven with His Savior, Jesus Christ, by the next morning.
As I went to sleep that night, I heard the unmistakable rumble of two CH-53s passing over the beach by our house. Those two helicopters landed at the Marine Base at Kaneohe where Shawn would jump into the cock-pit for the second leg of the flight. He sent me a text around 11pm just before taking off, “Wish I was there with you guys.” Less than half an hour later Pegasus 31 and 32 collided over the ocean just off the North Shore, instantly killing all twelve Marines on board.
So, on January 15th, 2016 I awoke to find myself with my children ages 2, 6, 9 and 11, beginning not a new school semester but an entirely new life.
It started with a phone call at 4am. My family on the mainland, five hours ahead, was seeing the news reports of a Marine helicopter crash on Oahu. It was my Dad who finally gave in and called to wake me up — sure he was going to hear me say Shawn was home.
But Shawn wasn’t home.
I remember laying my hand on his empty pillow as I tried to put together what my Dad was telling me. I remember his voice breaking as I told him I was going to hang up and call the squadron.
That morning I watched the sun rise over the green Ko’Olau mountains as I tried to reach someone by phone. There would be no answer. Squadron phones were confiscated, and friend’s phones were turned off for the night.
At one point I did reach a poor corporal at the duty desk, but all he could do in response to my questions was repeat over and over, “I’m sorry, Ma’am, I can’t say. I’m sorry Ma’am, I can’t say.” I left messages for friends begging them to come over and then I sat in my living room with my children.
They say my crying woke them up, but I don’t remember crying. I remember silence. I remember at one point picking my Bible up off the coffee table. I think I read a Psalm or two but mostly I just remember sitting there holding it like a comforting presence. We were all alone, waiting for someone to come to us, and I didn’t know what else to do.
I remember the sun rise.
And then they did come to us. I was sitting outside on the sidewalk when I saw three uniformed officers slowly walking towards our gate. I steeled myself for the worst but the news they brought was “We don’t know.”
An official report was read, “…missing, ocean, searching.” I knew.
For five days they would search, and we would not get the rescue we prayed for. At least not in the way we wanted it.
I know now that Shawn’s rescue had come at the moment of impact and I believe that at that moment his life was finally and completely redeemed.
Days later, I went to stand at the edge of the North Shore where the helicopters went down. I was afraid to go but my two sisters, Christie and Lisa, and two of my best friends on the island, Matt and Karyn, came with me. Matt was also our pastor and had been a comforting presence in my home from the very first day. As we stood there and I struggled to know how to feel, he began to read Isaiah 43:
“Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.
When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned…”
As he read, I began to see whales breeching on the horizon. They were swimming over the crash site. There was a sea turtle playing in the waves just in front of us. There were surfers and birds and scattered orchids from the leis we had broken and tossed into the water — so much life and beauty where I thought I would have to face total despair.
We had loved Hawaii together and I was afraid that it would be ruined forever, all our memories tainted.
But those words of Isaiah… I have called you by name. I will be with you…and all creation dancing before me…
Shawn had lived his whole life well. God had been with him and that beautiful place was the place He had chosen to take Shawn Home. Looking out at the dazzling blue ocean, despair wasn’t even an option.
Here’s the thing about being called by name:
Shawn had grown up without a father. When he went off to college, he had one last name printed on his birth certificate (the name of the father he never knew) and he had a different name that people called him by (the name of a stepfather who was never actually a father.)
But while in college, God crossed his path with a kind man who became his friend and mentor. They met together regularly to talk, study the Bible, and pray. They shared meals and family gatherings, and before long that man, Don Campbell, became the Dad Shawn had never known. He welcomed Shawn-boy, as he still calls him, into his life and family like a son.
So, when we got engaged and Shawn realized he didn’t have a name he wanted to share with me, God had already given him the solution. I’ll never forget the moment he courageously sat down next to Don and asked him with a shaking voice if it would be OK if he legally changed his name to Campbell. He was twenty-five years old and he finally knew who he wanted to be.
Shawn’s wise decision changed so much more than his last name. Shawn became the son of a father. He became a brother to three daughters adopted as babies and another daughter grafted into the several years earlier much like himself. Shawn, in his courage, had gained a whole family, a rich history. He laid claim to a legacy that his children now carry forever.
God called him by name. Today at the base of Shawn’s gravestone, there is a small, simple inscription.
Redeemed. Isaiah 43.
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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 Kansas City Regional Development Officer. She is grateful to pass on the support and hope her family was given, while honoring the legacy of her husband and all those who serve our nation.