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Remembering The Fallen: A Family Grieves

By Laurin Penland


Wilmington, NC – These days leading up to Memorial Day weekend we're talking to families across North Carolina as they remember loved ones who lost their lives in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

John Priestner was killed in 2006 in Iraq when his helicopter crashed. He left behind a wife and two daughters, then 10 and 14. The family says the four years since his death have been filled with the pitfalls and triumphs of dealing with grief.

The Priestners, mom Teresa, daughters Bre and Megan, and their two dogs live on a lake, just outside Fort Bragg, North Carolina.

Teresa, sits across from her two daughters Bre and Megan at their dining room table. A vase with a dozen American flags sits prominently in the middle. Beneath that is a picture of the girls' dad, John Priestner with an apache helicopter. His wife Teresa says three and half years after John's death, it still hits hard.

"First year was shock, you know the grief of it, you're just in shock. The second year, I was like, hopefully I'll be okay and my youngest fell apart, so I wasn't okay. I basically had to save her life. So, this year, I was like maybe this year is going to be good."

Teresa says this year has brought its own challenges. Her oldest daughter Bre will graduate from high school and soon be on her way to college. Bre says there are certain milestones she thought her dad would be here for.

"We had my senior prom April 17th, and then, one of the last things that my dad said when he left was that he wanted to teach me how to drive, but he just never came home."

Bre's sister Megan puts her head on the table as Bre strokes her hair. Megan says when she first heard the news that her dad had died she just stared at the clock in the living room while her mom and sister cried. The family visited John's grave in Arlington every month for a year, but Megan couldn't accept his death and eventually attempted suicide.

"I couldn't say, I'm letting him go or he's dead. That's why I went down that path, I was in deep depression. And, I don't want anybody to go through what we have."

Bre says watching her sister self-destruct was one of the hardest things she's ever gone through.

"Watching her hurt herself like that, it killed me. And there are still certain times where I'm so scared, because I lost dad already and I almost lost my baby sister. And that's my biggest fear, is to lose the people close to me."

The girls keep talking through their tears, because they've learned that holding it in will only make things worse. The family reached out to TAPS for help in dealing with their grief. The Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors runs camps and seminars for both grieving adults and children. Bre says the first year she went to the Good Grief Camp she was pretty skeptical about opening up to a bunch of strangers.

"I just loved taps, because I felt normal. I felt like, hey, wait a minute, they understand what I'm going through. I don't have to act like everything is okay. Because, they know its not."

The Priestner's two dogs wander in and out of the room. Like many of the things in the Priestner's lives, the dogs remind them of John's life and death. They got their second dog after he died and named her Star to represent the Gold Star families who've lost a loved one to war. Reminders and pictures of John with his family fill the room.

"And this was when I was little. Bre went on a ride in a Huey and I was really upset that I couldn't go, because I was too young and Dad was talking to me and holding me, and I'm really glad that I have pictures because it's what makes me remember and makes me smile and know that I had a wonderful person like this."

Megan says losing her father at the age of ten was tough.

"And I feel bad especially for the younger kids that never even got to remember them. You know, I spent ten years, but some of them didn't even spend a minute with them. And that really breaks my heart for them, because my dad was amazing."

As Mom Teresa tries to get through another day without John, she recalls what he said before he left for Iraq:

"Don't be mad at the army, and don't be mad at God. I'm doing what I love and what I'm supposed to do."

This memorial weekend, Megan will visit her friends at the Good Grief Camp in Washington DC. Her sister Bre will stay home to take her final exams in High School.

Do you have insight or expertise on this topic? Please email us, we'd like to hear from you. news@whqr.org.