Living Memorial Day as Gold Star parents

The last eight Memorial Days, including today, have looked entirely different for Jim and Leslie Groves since their son was killed in 2013 in Afghanistan.

On March 16 that year, 37-year-old James Groves III’s Bell OH-58 Kiowa helicopter went down after a fuel pump malfunction. Because of the 12-hour time difference between Afghanistan and Dayton, Jim and Leslie would have a military officer at their front door in Kettering that same evening to tell them their son had died.

Jim and Leslie, married 49 years in October, lean on each other for support. They will often, on no certain occasion, wear matching shirts from various Gold Star family events or organizations they’ve been a part of.

It was a grey Saturday, Leslie said, not too long after they had finished dinner and Jim was watching TV.

“The doorbell rang and I went to the door and said ‘Leslie, it’s officers. Not police officers,” Jim said. “It’s been an interesting journey. One you don’t plan on and (one where) you don’t see what’s coming.”

Quoting a Medal of Honor recipient, Jim said “You know, it’s the worst day of your life. There’s got to be a mistake.”

“We were numb,” Jim said. “About four in the morning we decided it was time for us to lay down and go to sleep. … Sunday was a bad day. I went to each of the neighbors that knew James and I let them know it was going to be on the news so they were aware.”

Jim was dreading calling their friend Paul, a Vietnam veteran who had watched his buddy die in his arms.

“He actually took the call quite well,” Jim said. “But I worried about it and pushing him over the edge with the demons.”

Last Memorial Day, the Groves heard a Gold Star wife ask another family, ‘How can you smile?’

“We do (smile),” Jim said, “but we have our moments, too. You’re not supposed to mourn your whole life, I don’t think. Life goes on and James wouldn’t want us to do that.”

Leslie described her son as somewhere between 6’3” and 6’4” tall and between 230 and 235 pounds.

“It took a shoe horn to get him in that helicopter,” Leslie said.

James Groves, an Army Chief Warrant Officer, left behind his wife Katie and two sons, James Edison IV and Shane. When the boys were younger, both Katie and James were active military working in the same unit. Both sets of grandparents would take turns watching the boys, driving hundreds of miles between Illinois, where Katie’s parents lived, and Ohio.

“That was a scary time because both were in same unit and could be deployed anytime,” Leslie said. “

During two of James’ year-long tours in Iraq, Leslie was a nurse at Southview and Grandview Medical Centers working in recovery rooms. Doctors who knew Leslie would track news bulletins sent to the hospital to get notified whenever a helicopter in Iraq would crash.

“Doctors here were keeping me informed to see if it was my son,” Leslie said. “In one day, they lost three helicopters.”

Despite the doctors’ good intentions, Leslie always responded to them with ‘I won’t know right away. I have to wait till I see an officer and a chaplain at my front door.”

James prepared his parents for that day in case it ever did come. They knew what to expect if he was killed.

“You start out kind of numb,” Leslie said. “Food tastes like saw dust, that sort of thing. You kind of start progressing off of that.”

“That stayed with us for a while,” Jim said. “Everybody is different. We know a Gold Star daughter, her dad was killed, and she’s still way back in her grief.”

The Groves worked through their grief in a number of ways, but their involvement in local Gold Star and veteran organizations snowballed the first couple years and would eventually transform their lives into what it is today.

“Things have changed tremendously,” Jim said. “I don’t think Leslie and I truly understood Memorial Day until you’re in the situation that we’re in.”

In a speech prepared for a 2017 Gold Star Families Memorial Service at the Dayton Veteran’s Association, Jim mixed his own words with those of James Garfield from the first ever Memorial Day —first known as Decoration Day — on May 30, 1868 at Arlington National Cemetery to a crowd of about 5,000 people.

“The thing about Memorial Day, is that it’s not a happy day,” Jim said “It should be a day of reverence, a day to respect and honor those who paid the ultimate sacrifice. … Some we know very well, some never came home, some were never found. It’s to those people that we owe the ultimate respect. And that’s a national debt we can never repay.”

“It’s a sobering time,” Jim said. “It’s not a time of hot dogs and baseball or swimming pools. It’s a time to reflect on those people and the price they payed.”

The year James died was the year Jim planned to retire. But the Groves’ work with veterans and other military non-profits now takes up well over 40 hours of their week.

Their journey has included meeting two governors, senators, living Medal of Honor recipients, and other Gold Star families who have become friends. They have sky dived and had the opportunity to pilot the same helicopter their son flew when he was killed.

“He was a heck of a good kid and I couldn’t have been more proud of what he accomplished,” Jim said. “I’m not happy about being in this situation. However, you have no choice and I think when I said something about my retiring the year he was killed, I swear James said ‘hell no’ and I think that’s why we’ve been led down this path.”

Operation Iraqi Freedom U.S. Casualty Status

Total deaths - 4,431

Operation Enduring Freedom U.S. Casualty Status

Worldwide total deaths - 2,353


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