Aydin Kerns was just a three-month-old infant when he lost his father.
“I know that he was a Marine… and I know that he also died,” the five-year-old said.
Sitting at the kitchen table, Aydin was surrounded by memories of a man he looks and acts like but won’t ever get to speak with.
Aydin is far from the only child missing a parent this Memorial Day, and each of the families have their own way of remembering their service member.
Losing their other half
Pointing at the wooden box, the last photo Derek Kerns took with his son sitting on top of it, Aydin says his dad’s ashes are inside and that he’s still with him.
Mechele Kerns, standing behind her son, wipes her tears away. She was married to her husband for just six weeks when he died.
Cpl. Derek Kerns, 21, was two weeks into his first deployment with the in Agadir, Morocco, Mechele Kerns said. They were completing a training exercise and had already unloaded troops and supplies when, during ascension, the Osprey crashed on April 11, 2012.
Three years later on March 10, 2015, another training helicopter crashed off the coast of Florida, killing all 11 military members inside.
That included Staff Sgt. Marcus Bawol, 26; Staff Sgt. Liam Flynn, 33; and Staff Sgt. Andrew Seif, 26.
Flynn left behind his wife Destiny and their daughter, Leilani, who was only 11-months-old at the time. Erika Hipple was engaged to Bawol at the time of the crash. She’d put their save the dates in the mailbox the day of the crash, not finding out about her fiancé until the next morning.
“I literally went from planning a wedding to planning a funeral,” Hipple said.
Seif’s wife, Dawn, was pregnant with their son, James, and the couple had sent out their baby announcements the week before the crash.
“They got the baby announcement the day it hit the news,” Dawn Seif said.
In an instant, the lives of these four women were changed and Memorial Day took on a new significance. Each of these women have different plans for Memorial Day, but all of them will be remembering their lost loved ones.
Destiny Flynn is in Arlington, Virginia where her 3-year-old daughter is working with TAPS over the weekend, and where the two will visit Liam Flynn’s gravesite.
“Liam is probably one of the most humble people I’ve ever met,” she said. “You almost are cheated out of life if you’ve never met somebody like him … it was almost like he was too good to be here.”
An Ireland native, Liam Flynn truly lived the American dream, according to his wife. He achieved everything in life he wanted, including being a Marine and having a family, and although Destiny Flynn said that life was cut short, she refuses to be bitter about it.
Half an hour before he got on the helicopter, Liam Flynn told his wife he loved her, she said. Knowing they were in such a good place helps her grieve and cope with his loss.
Liam Flynn was not one to take life for granted, his wife said, and it gives her peace to know that he loved and was loved, and that he was happy.
“I’m grateful for what I had and grateful for the time I had with him,” Destiny Flynn said.
To honor her husband, Destiny Flynn takes her daughter to his grave — and they leave a little of themselves behind.
Last year Leilani left a pair of her sneakers behind, small replicas of her dad’s that she’d outgrown. Destiny Flynn writes a message to her husband on a Starbucks cup — the place she first laid eyes on him — and this year Leilani will leave a jar behind filled with seashells and a photo.
“It’s already such a sad place to go,” Destiny Flynn said. “When I go there I try to make it like celebrating his life.”
Balloons to Heaven
Mechele Kerns met her husband through mutual friends at the pier in Surf City and said she knew the moment they met that they were destined to be together.
“His smile, his eyes, the way he joked … he was everything I’ve wanted for as long as I remember,” Mechele Kerns said.
Aydin was the one who kept her going after Derek Kerns died, she said. He gave her a reason to be positive, and she knew her son needed her then more than ever.
“I had to teach him that bad things may happen to us, but we can never let them define us,” she said.
On special days, and especially on Memorial Day, she lets Aydin decide how they’ll remember Derek Kerns, and she’s guessing this year he’ll again choose to send off a balloon to heaven.
Aydin recalls sending off a Spiderman balloon after one of his birthdays, saying he sent the gift to his dad for him to play with.
Mechele Kerns said the balloons have drawings and notes to her husband attached to them, and when Aydin is a little older she’ll switch from balloons to paper lanterns.
Though they weren’t married, Hipple and Bawol spent nearly a decade together after meeting in high school and had been engaged just a few months before Bawol’s death.
Bawol held off on the wedding, Hipple said, because he wanted her to finish school first and get her career in order. Like many Marine spouses, Hipple said she and Bawol had the difficult what-if conversations and she believes he wanted her to be able to stand on her own without him, should that day come.
Bawol was kind and gentle, a supportive partner who was good at his job, Hipple said.
“I just want to make him proud,” she said.
This weekend, she planned to overcome an emotional hurdle and attend a friend’s wedding. She’s stayed away from them since his death, she said.
On Memorial Day, she plans to take some time alone to remember him.
A second pair of high school sweethearts, Dawn Seif and her husband Andrew had been together for 10 years and married almost five when the helicopter crashed. Being pregnant with James, she said, is what kept her sane, knowing she had someone else to care for.
Though James is still young, he can point to a photo and recognize his dad, and Dawn Seif said she talks about her husband all the time. She takes James to the cemetery in Arlington every couple of months to visit.
This Memorial Day, she plans to spend it the way she would if Andrew Seif were still here: have some friends over and let their children play, let them just be kids.
“That’s the best way to honor them, to live life the way they would see fit,” Dawn Seif said.
She asked that others keep her and the families like hers in mind on Memorial Day, to remember that it’s not just a long weekend.
“Don’t forget the families, reach out, don’t let them forget they’re part of the (military) family,” she said.
Living through their children
One of the hardest parts of losing Bawol for Hipple is missing the family.
Unlike the wives, she and Bawol didn’t have children, and the possibility of that future with him died when he did, she said.
What helped her was rucking, along with Destiny Flynn, from Florida to Sneads Ferry in the 2016 march to honor her husband and the others who lost their lives in the crash.
“I didn’t just lose Marcus, I lost close friends of ours as well,” she said.
During the march, the men who knew Bawol in a professional setting swapped stories with her as she shared stories of his personal life. It was an awesome experience, she said.
Dawn Seif, Mechele Kerns, and Destiny Flynn now see more and more of their husbands in the children they left behind.
James will sometimes give his mother a look and she knows it came straight from Andrew Seif.
Leilani is a quiet and intuitive little girl who watches before she engages, just like Liam Flynn.
“Even though he’s passed away, you have to find the meaning for everything, and for me I’m lucky that I have a piece of him. I have a daughter with him,” Destiny Flynn said.
Aydin already has plans to follow in his father’s footsteps and said he plans to join the , as he practiced a locked-knee walk and saluting.
“I pray to God, I want him to come back, every night,” Aydin said. “I love him and I miss him super much.”
Reporter Amanda Thames can be reached at 910-219-8467 or Amanda.Thames@JDNews.com
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