On Father’s Day, Haley Hartwick usually stops by Texas Roadhouse, which was her father’s favorite restaurant, to get a take-out dinner of steak and potatoes. She then likes to go home and watch the movie “Quest for Camelot,” a film they enjoyed watching together.
Her father, Army Chief Warrant Officer Michael Hartwick, was killed in 2006 in Iraq when his helicopter was shot down by enemy fire. She was 10 years old.
“I usually pay tribute to him with little things,” said Hartwick, 22, who lives in Reston. “Father’s Day has a bit of a bittersweet, melancholy feeling.”
She and other children who lost a father in the line of duty wrote letters to their dads for Father’s Day this year in part as a grief exercise, in part to honor their fathers’ legacies — and also to be part of a project started by the Children of Fallen Patriots Foundation, a nonprofit organization that pays full tuition for gold-star children to attend college.
The Father’s Day letter-writing initiative began because more than 97 percent of service members killed in the line of duty are men, according to the foundation, leaving most of the foundation’s beneficiaries feeling adrift on that day.
For anyone who has lost a dad — whether recently or long ago — Father’s Day can be somewhere between wistful and gut wrenching.
For Hartwick, writing the letter helped her feel closer to the father she lost years ago, she said.
“I felt a sense of peace after I wrote it,” she said.
And it felt fitting, because she has a postcard her father wrote her on the day he died, April 1, 2006.
“I have his last words to me that he left me,” she said. “And I feel like I’m leaving this letter for him.”
She paraphrased his last letter to her as saying: “I am writing because I was thinking of you this morning. Only three more months until I get to see you. Please take care of your mother and brother.”
Her Father’s Day letter to him reads, in part: “To my pilot, my hero, my sweet father, this day is for you. … You still serve as my inspiration and the person that fuels my passion. I only hope to make you proud & continue to achieve the dreams you had for me.”
She ends her letter, “Love always, your little girl Haley.”
Hartwick graduated last year from Baylor University with a major in social work, a profession she chose because she wants to help people, the same motivation her father had when he joined the Army, she said.
She now works for the Virginia-based Children of Fallen Patriots Foundation as its development administrator.
Many of the letters are filled with grief, but also with gratitude. And each letter shows that even though their fathers are gone, their children still very much want their fathers to be proud of them.
“Daddy, I miss you. This is the one unwavering fact of my existence,” writes Johanna Walker, 21, now a college student. “I will miss you every day until I die but that is not a bad thing. I know there is something stronger than my grief, which is my love for you and your love for me.”
Walker’s father, Army Col. Cliff Walker, died saving his son from drowning in 2007.
“You lived your life so profoundly, Daddy. “The example of your life is the greatest gift you could have ever given me. … You, even in your last moments — especially in your last moments — taught me how to live.”
Walker, who lives in Texas, wrote that she wants to be a nurse to save lives, just as her father saved her brother’s life. Walker is studying community health at Tufts University.
“You used to sing ‘Don’t Fence Me In’ every night and I took it to heart, Daddy,” she wrote. “You raised a little girl with the knowledge that nothing could keep her from her dreams and now that little girl is a young woman who possesses a firm belief in her potential.”
Another letter, this one from Nick Goc, 31, son of Air Force Maj. Zenon Goc, shows how inspired he has been by his father. Zenon Goc was killed in a B-1 Bomber crash in 1992, when his son was 6 years old.
Nick Goc, who lives in Clearwater, Fla., went on to become an all-American boxer at the U.S. Naval Academy, his father’s alma matter.
His letter begins:
“Dear Dad, you have not been physically here with me since I was six years old. I am writing to you because I believe you have always been with me, or have at least watched over me since before I was born. At first when I learned of your death I was angry, sad and hopeless. However as time went on and I grieved, I started to see the blessings you left us all.”
He continues: “Our small family became closer after your death because we had to struggle, and it made us all stronger people and a stronger unit.”
He writes about how deeply he respects all fathers, and also “mothers who had to become fathers.”
“If you can see us from up there, or maybe just our hearts, be proud and know we will see you again one day. Happy Father’s Day, and I thank God for the time I had with you.”