They come back every Memorial Day weekend because of how their loved ones died. They relish talking about how their loved ones lived.

Thomas Waskey was a garrulous, funny guy — “the pretty-boy jock,” his widow, Rebekah Peaco, says with a laugh — from Litchfield Township, Ohio. He joined the U.S. Army in 2002 and served in the 1st Infantry Division — the Big Red One.

“Which is the baddest of the bad for the Army,” says Rebekah.

She’s at the Ship’s Hatch, a gift shop in Crystal City, Va., that specializes in military items: T-shirts, hats, coasters, pins, lanyards, challenge coins and the like.

This weekend, members of the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors are gathering in hotels nearby, and the Ship’s Hatch has become a cathartic bazaar for these Gold Star families.


Tommy was Rebekah’s high school sweetheart. He was the father of four girls, now 18, 16, 14 and 6.


“He said, ‘I’m a father before I’m a soldier,’” Rebekah says.

That’s how Tommy explained what he did in 2005 during his second tour of Iraq. He was traveling in a convoy through Fallujah when he noticed an Iraqi boy kicking a soccer ball against a wall. To Tommy’s practiced eyes, something was wrong with the scene.

He ran to the boy, embraced him and spun him away from the IED that detonated that instant. Tommy took the brunt of the explosion.

The boy survived. Tommy was never the same. He returned to Ohio with a traumatic brain injury. In 2017, he died of a stroke. He was 33.


There’s a room devoted to Tommy at the home he and Rebekah shared with their girls. Last year at TAPS — her first — Rebekah bought a bunch of stuff at the Ship’s Hatch to decorate the room. She’s back for more, including some decals for Tommy’s once-broken-down Ford F-150 truck. She got it back on the road.


A trio of tattoos adorn Rebekah’s right shoulder: the green and red patch of the Big Red One, a folded American flag, dog tags. Inked across her forearm is “I love you — Tommy,” copied from her late husband’s handwriting.

Judith Nolen’s son Michael had a tattoo, a big eagle on his back. When Mike showed it to Judith, she recognized it right away. When he and his older brother, Sam, were kids in Spring Valley, Wis., they both vowed to join the Marines. They would drill together and sketched an eagle as their club’s emblem.


Sam died in a farming accident at age 12. Mike never forgot his boyhood promise to his brother. As a Marine corporal, he had that crude eagle put on his skin so he could take Sam with him.

Mike was due home in 2½ weeks when his life was taken by an IED in Afghanistan on June 27, 2011. He was 22.


“I can walk into a grocery store and tear up when I see a can of sliced pineapple,” Judith says.

She used to include canned pineapple in the care packages she sent to Mike in Afghanistan, and he would share whatever she sent with his Marine buddies.

More than 2,000 participants have come to this weekend’s TAPS gathering. There are seminars for spouses and parents, a Good Grief Camp for children.


It’s a club no one wants to join, but it’s a club whose members can find empathy only here, with others who have been through it, who go through it still.

And though it’s death that brought them together, it’s the memories of life that they hold on to and delight in sharing.

Mike, Judith says, would cadge free pizza by offering to climb to the top of his barracks. Mike taught his family to recognize the “Marine walk,” the proud strut that only Marines possess. On his first visit home as a Marine, it was three days before he called Judith “Mom.” (“It was, ‘Yes, ma’am,’ ” Judith says.)


Mike’s photo is on a pin that Judith is wearing. His hair is cropped Marine short, but it’s a candid picture, not an official portrait. There’s a smile on Mike’s face, a daisy in his teeth.


“When he died, everybody said, ‘What’s his flower?’ ” Judith says. “At first I was like, ‘What flower?’ ”

Then she remembered. When Mike was young — 10 years old — and would cut the grass, he had a tendency to mow right over her daisies, so lost was he in his daydreaming. He’d come to her distraught and apologetic.

“I said, ‘Honey, they’ll come back.’ ”

The daisy became Mike’s flower, the flower he would give to friends, the flower they bring to his grave at Fort Snelling National Cemetery in Minneapolis.

“Mike said, ‘I like daisies. They don’t die. They come back.’ ”

Twitter: @johnkelly

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