How a ‘Lone Survivor’ Gold Star mother is doing Memorial Day differently this year

"We're going to do the best we can to make sure we are not forgetting our country's heroes."

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Alex Lacasse, Portsmouth Herald, N.H. View Alex Lacasse, Portsmouth Herald, N.H.'s articles

EXETER — Gold Star Mother Natalie Healy calls the distinction a club that no one wants to be a part of, and for her, she said every day is Memorial Day since her son, Daniel Healy, was killed in Afghanistan in 2005.

“From that day on, your life is different,” Healy said. “You do what you can to make his legacy something that is worthwhile. Being a Gold Star Mother, Father, Sister or Brother is that you live with the fact you'll never see your son again.”

With no parade to commemorate Memorial Day due to the ongoing pandemic, organizer Florence Ruffner and Healy said they had to be creative to honor Exeter's service members killed in the line of duty.

Instead, Ruffner put up red, white and blue buntings on the fence in the front yard of her Pine Street home and the large signs with portraits of Exeter High School and Phillips Exeter Academy graduates killed fighting in America's most recent military conflicts. Traditionally, the signs are carried by members of the Exeter High football team during the annual parade.

The left-most portrait along Ruffner's fence is of Navy SEAL Daniel Healy, who was killed during Operation Red Wings after his helicopter was shot down attempting to rescue a SEAL reconnaissance team. The operation was depicted in book “Lone Survivor,” and later made into a movie starring Mark Wahlberg with the same name in the 2013.

Ruffner said retired Navy Capt. John Dal Santo will make video-taped remarks on what it means to be a Gold Star parent and there will be a sounding of taps by Joe Kenick Jr., a Korean War veteran. Rev. Steve McGee, of the Exeter Presbyterian Church provided the invocation and benediction.

For Healy, she said she was confronted with the visceral pain that never leaves Gold Star families shortly after her son was killed. The moment came at an event years ago when she was introduced to a Gold Star Mother whose son was killed during the Vietnam War.

“At that point, it had been 40 years since,” Healy said. “She turned around (when I was introduced to her) and the tears were just running down her face. I realized then it never goes away, and that's OK because when you love someone, you're willing to cry for them.”

As part of the virtual ceremony, residents can tune into Channel 22 and Exeter TV's YouTube and Facebook accounts at 9 a.m. on Monday. The ceremony will consist of a video of Ruffner placing a wreath at each of the memorials along the traditional parade route, at Swasey Parkway, placing a wreath in the Squamscott River to honor those killed at sea, outside the town office, the Roll of Honor at the Historical Society, Gale Park and Exeter Cemetery. There will also be a performance of “The Star-Spangled Banner” by her granddaughter, Lana Ruffner.

“We needed to have some way to pay our respects to those who have made the ultimate sacrifice,” Ruffner said. “We wish we could do more, no question. We're going to do the best we can to make sure we are not forgetting our country's heroes.”

Ruffner said wreaths will also be out laid out for Monday at the normal parade stops for residents who want to walk the parade route for themselves after tuning in and reflect at each of the locations.

“Through Florence's ambitions and energy, we're still able to observe Memorial Day,” Healy said. “Though we can't do it with a parade, it's a wonderful thing to be able to do it virtually and respectfully.”

After her son's death, Healy started the Dan Healy Memorial Foundation, which hosts an annual 5K race to raise money to award scholarships to Exeter High School seniors entering the military or trade school, support single mothers in the Exeter area, assist Seacoast veterans and support elementary school children through the Courtesy Matters program.

Recently, Healy said the foundation awarded a $5,000 scholarship through the Mike Murphy Foundation to an EHS senior.

“Being able to do that is a tremendous honor,” Healy said. “We also ask people the best way to honor our children is to live a life worthy of their sacrifice.”

Exeter TV producer Bob Glowacky said producing the virtual parade was the first opportunity the station had to record in-person since the pandemic started. He said along with the 15-minute video, Exeter TV will post video clips and photos from the town's past Memorial Day parades.

Glowacky said he will also post a video from the Historical Society's digitized archive films, which is a news reel from 1940, showing how Memorial Day was observed around the country. He said there is also a film the Lion's Club produced showing Exeter's 1940 Memorial Day observance.

“It feels good for me personally, as a TV station and town because it keeps some normalcy while it's not a normal way to observe Memorial Day,” Glowacky said. “It's nice to make sure we're maintaining that tradition and we're happy to offer a virtual option for residents.”

©2020 Portsmouth Herald, N.H. – Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.