Honoring the Fallen: Heath Veteran tells the stories of 50 Gold Star Families

  • Contributed Photos/Staff Illustration

  • Keith Sherman stands on a ridge in California last year before starting his trip. Contributed photo/Keith Sherman

  • Keith Sherman. Contributed photo/Keith Sherman—

  • Keith Sherman. Contributed photo/Keith Sherman—

  • Keith Sherman. Contributed photo/Keith Sherman—

  • Keith Sherman. Contributed photo/Keith Sherman—

  • Keith Sherman. Contributed photo/Keith Sherman—

  • Keith Sherman. Contributed photo/Keith Sherman—

  • Keith Sherman, of Heath, rides his dirt bike through the woods near his parents’ house on Judd Road. The number 22, inscribed on the dirt bike’s side, is a reference to a 2012 Veterans’ Affairs report that recorded 22 veteran suicides per day.

  • Keith Sherman at his parents' house in Heath. Staff Photo/Andy Castillo—

  • For the past year, Sherman has lived out of the Audi and tent pictured here, recording interviews with Gold Star Families as a part of a project started through his nonprofit organization, Gold Star Dirt, a name that incorporates his love for dirt biking.

  • Keith Sherman, left, with parents Cecelia Sherman, middle and Leland Sherman, right, at their home in Heath. Staff Photo/Andy Castillo

  • McKenna Scobie, of Hawaii, whose late-husband, Army Sgt. Drew Scobie, died in 2014, shades in a map that Keith Sherman took with him around the United States. Each Gold Star Family filled in their particular state and wrote the name of their fallen loved one. Contributed photo/Keith Sherman

  • Tomorrow I will be learning of the life and legacy of Marine Capt. Jennifer Harris whose CH-46 Sea knight helicopter she was piloting was shot down by an anti-aircraft missile near Fallujah Iraq. Also killed were 1st Lt. Jared M. Landaker, Sgt. Travis D. Pfister, Cpl. Thomas E. Saba, Sgt. James R. Tijerina, Navy Hospital Corpsman 1st Class Gilbert Minjares Jr. and Navy Hospital Corpsman 3rd Class Manuel A. Ruiz. Contributed photo—

  • Gold Star mother Sandy Bohling shares the story of her son, Sgt. Matthew Bohling, an Alaska native who was killed in Iraq in 2005, during an interview with Sherman earlier this year in September. Contributed photo/Keith Sherman

  • Sherman, at right, interviews Raymond Harris, seated at left, Friday morning. Raymond Harris is the father of Marine Capt. Jennifer Harris, who died in a helicopter crash while serving in Iraq in 2007. Contributed photoS/Keith Sherman

  • Marine Capt. Jennifer Harris, who died in a helicopter crash in 2007 in Iraq. Contributed photo

  • Keith Sherman traces his journey on a map. Staff Photo/Andy Castillo—

  • Cecelia and Leland Sherman look up at a display case of military medals on the wall of their home in Heath. Staff Photo/Andy Castillo

Staff Writer
Published: 10/18/2019 6:52:53 PM

Editor’s note: Some information, including the names of family members and friends, has been intentionally withheld for security reasons.

Keith Sherman, a Heath native, was in the joint operations center of a secure forward operating base near Baghdad, Iraq one night in 2010 when an explosion rocked the compound. Televisions fell off the wall; he was knocked down to his knees.

Screams filled the haunting silence.

Rifle in hand, Sherman, then a special operations parachute rigger in the Naval Special Warfare Command, climbed an outpost tower to see what had happened. Just outside the concrete wall, acrid smoke rose from the blackened house of an Iraqi man who’d worked in the American base’s maintenance department.

“His wife was the only one who survived,” Sherman recalled one recent morning, in a voice glazed with emotion. “She was walking around picking up body parts. That scream. You can never pull it out of your head.”

Confronting the horrors of war is a daily reality for Sherman, 46, who joined the Navy in 1992 and served for 26 years.

“Before I retired, I went to a really dark place,” Sherman recounted. He sat at the dining room table of his childhood home on Judd Road. “There’s still a stigma attached to it; to getting help. Someone once told me it was the bravest thing I ever did. I agree.”

For Sherman, that help came in unexpected ways.

Through a sliding door, his dirt bike rested on its kickstand, awash in sunlight, beside a tent-topped Audi SUV that he’s been living out of for the past year. After retiring as a senior chief petty officer last August, Sherman embarked on a physical and emotional journey across North America, dirt bike in tow. He traveled from Balboa Naval Hospital in San Diego, Calif., where he was stationed, to all 50 states, visiting the families of slain soldiers — designated ‘Gold Star Families’ — recording their stories for the Library of Congress’ Veterans History Project. The term ‘Gold Star’ dates back to World War I when military families displayed a star for every member serving in the Armed Forces; the star was blue if they were alive, gold if dead.

In homage, Sherman founded Gold Star Dirt, a nonprofit with a mission of preserving the legacy of fallen veterans, in 2018. The name was inspired by Sherman’s passion for dirt biking, a hobby that he says made him feel alive during his darkest moments and conjures pleasant memories of racing through Heath’s rugged hills as a youngster. Blazed on his bike’s side is the number 22, referencing a 2012 Office of Veterans Affairs report that estimated 22 veterans succumbed to suicide each day.

“When I twist the throttle, everything else melts away. I’m able to focus on riding and nature,” he said. “It allows me to focus on one thing, not a thousand things in my head.”

On Friday, Sherman recorded the project’s final story in his hometown state of Massachusetts, with Raymond Harris, the father of Marine Capt. Jennifer J. Harris, a Swampscott native who was killed in 2007 while piloting a helicopter in Iraq.

“To have their hero’s story preserved eternally in the Library of Congress is huge, from what they’ve told me,” Sherman said. He will formally present the stories to the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. Nov. 1. So far, dozens of politicians, friends and civic leaders have said they’ll be in attendance.

According to Kerry Ward, a liaison with the Veterans History Project, Sherman’s initiative is significant because it “makes accessible the firsthand memories of our nation’s veterans so that future generations will be able to hear directly from them and learn of their selfless service.” The history project, which was created by Congress in 2000 and is a part of the library’s American Folklife Center, is a grassroots effort that relies on volunteers. The collection currently has more than 110,000 audio and video interviews, memoirs, original photographs, maps, diaries, letters and pieces of artwork, among other documents.

The November 2016 Gold Star Family Voices Act expanded the project’s original scope to include oral histories from parents, spouses, siblings and children of servicemembers “who died as a result of their service during a period of war,” Ward said. In June, Ward noted that Sherman submitted the first half of his project, 20 oral histories, to the center. He will donate the final 30 next month during the ceremony.

Each video is edited for clarity. Sherman voices over footage of sweeping landscapes and images of the service member who has died, explaining the significance of their legacy. In interviews, family members recall intimate details about their loved one. For example, in one about Army Spc. Dennis J. Ferderer Jr., who was killed at 20 years old in 2005 in Ad Duluiyah, Iraq, Claudina Ferderer recalled that her son would fall asleep while milking calves on their farm in New Salem, N.D.

“They usually got up at 6 o’clock, he and his brother, and they had chores to do,” she said. Then, “It was come in the house, get ready for school, off to school they went. During the summer, it was out to the fields, helping Dennis (her husband).”

Karen Lloyd, a retired colonel and director of the Veterans History Project, said the collection wouldn’t exist “without the efforts of individuals and organizations like Keith Sherman and Gold Star Dirt, who serve again to share these treasured stories with us.”

Facing down demons

Gold Star Dirt isn’t just about the stories that Sherman memorializes; it’s also about his own. In the last year, Sherman says he has learned to confront personal demons.

Parents have opened their hearts and homes, allowing him to sleep in the bedrooms of their lost children, “Below their portraits,” he said. His own family financed his mission when he ran out of cash. Others walked with him through the shared grief of lost loved ones.

Feeling that “love and kindness was something I didn’t expect at all,” Sherman said. “Connecting with these families and providing them with an opportunity (to share) was dual-edged; talking to them helped me.”

Since he joined the service more than two decades ago, Sherman estimated he has lost dozens of friends in combat and to suicide. Exactly how many, “I’ve never counted,” he said, sitting back.

A clock ticked on the wall near a display case of Army medals earned by his father, Leland Sherman, 78, during the Vietnam War. His mother, Cecelia Sherman, 75, a retired emergency room nurse, sat in the living room, listening to her son’s story — it wasn’t anything new.

In a followup phone call later, Cecelia Sherman related that watching her son grapple with war trauma, “Was really hard. He was obviously depressed, and I couldn’t help him through it,” she said.

It takes a veteran to understand another veteran, and in that respect, Leland Sherman, who served from 1963 to 1966 in a defensive unit that was prepared to shoot down Russian bombers with nuclear-tipped missiles, says he can relate to at least some of his son’s experiences.

“If you’re not in it yourself, you have no idea what’s going on,” he said, recalling a day when their son “Called us in tears because a very good friend of his” had visited a treatment center “and then went outside to his car and killed himself. That’s a traumatic experience. … How do you cope with it?”

An epidemic

Keith Sherman was born in Greenfield and raised in Heath. He graduated from Mohawk Trail High School in Buckland, spent the summer working odd jobs, and joined the Navy at 18 to see the world and to give back.

“I remember, at that time, watching Desert Storm, the first one. I felt like there was something greater than myself out there,” Sherman said. “Like any kid at that age, I felt like there was a world out there and I had to explore it. I did.”

His time in the service was a study in contrast — “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” Sherman continued. On the one hand, he traveled the world “without a care,” to Greece, among other European nations. On the other, he saw death and became acquainted with the worst kind of heartache.

“Losing friends — going to countless memorial services; having your friends commit suicide; the guilt that’s left over,” he said, pausing for a moment to recompose himself.

When he was stationed in San Diego, a coworker jumped off the Coronado Bridge, “And I had to drive over that bridge every day and think about him,” Sherman says. While teaching at Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape (SERE) School in Maine, a close friend and fellow instructor confided in him that he was contemplating suicide, but asked him to keep the disclosure quiet. Back then, there was a stigma within the ranks about suicidal ideations, Sherman says. He honored the request; his friend killed himself soon after, leaving behind a wife and two children.

“One suicide after another. Our doc. Our corpsman. Our medic. My friend committed suicide. Friends who I’d worked with in the boat team committed suicide. It seemed like an epidemic,” Sherman said.

Veteran suicide is a widespread problem. In 2017, 45,390 American adults died from suicide, according to the 2019 Department of Veterans Affairs annual report that was released last month. Of those, 6,139 were U.S. veterans, equaling a suicide rate that’s 1.5 times that of nonveterans. Over the last decade, veteran suicide rates have risen from 15.9 per day in 2005 to 16.8 in 2017, the report notes.

Locally, Timothy Niejadlik, director of the Upper Pioneer Valley Veterans’ Services District, said he knows of at least three Franklin County veterans who’ve committed suicide in recent memory, some prompted by post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), others by physical pain inflicted by war, including Agent Orange, a chemical weapon used by the U.S. military during the Vietnam War.

“Trying to get guys into these centers is the difficult part. Most veterans aren’t that outgoing once they get out of the service — not reclusive, but not outgoing — they’re not that publicly minded to share their story or their situation,” Niejadlik said.

For his part, Niejadlik said the Upper Pioneer Valley Veterans’ Services District links veterans with PTSD or other mental health challenges with Veterans Affairs, the national health care agency that runs a variety of treatment programs. Since he took over managing the district in 2013, Niejadlik said he’s noticed an increase in the number of resources allocated to veteran service organizations.

“The resources are there. It’s just about getting the veteran or a family member to reach out and steer them in the right direction,” he said.

Speaking as a mother who’s experienced what it’s like on the other end of the phone, Cecelia Sherman said it’s imperative to keep hope alive and to continue reaching out to loved ones who might be in a mental health crisis.

“Don’t give up. Just keep loving your son. Stay with him. Hopefully, it’ll turn around,” she said.

‘The dark stuff’

While deployed, Sherman says he experienced the full brunt of war.
Over decades, he has completed more than 600 Freefall High Altitude Low Opening (HALO) and High Altitude High Opening (HAHO) jumps, as well as more than 30 static-line jumps. In the process, Sherman says he has landed hard a number of times, which has taken a physical toll. While deployed, mortar fire was a daily occurrence. In 2015, Extortion 17, a Navy helicopter carrying SEAL Team Six, was shot down, taking with it many friends. Another time, he led a rescue team to secure a disabled chopper under direct assault.

Combat changed him.

“In the way that PTSD manifests, I became hyper-aware,” Sherman said.

At that time, Sherman says he was married. When he returned home from deployment, he brought with him “the dark stuff we don’t talk about,” he said. Once, for example, “I woke up at like 2 a.m. in the morning and I was choking my wife.” Since joining the service, Sherman has been divorced twice; other familial relationships have become strained.

In training, soldiers are taught to handle a weapon, not emotions, Sherman says. He turned to alcohol as a coping mechanism. At his worst, he credits dirt biking and a good friend, Tiko, who pushed him to get help, with saving his life.

“I had MRIs done. I had 12 lesions on my brain from all the concussions,” he says. “I had both: A traumatic brain injury and PTSD.”

In the final year of Sherman’s enlistment, “I fell apart. I ended up being removed from my job as an E-8. In the last year of my service, I spent time in a wounded warrior treatment program.”

While at the Overcoming Adversity and Stress Injury Support (OASIS) program for veterans with PTSD in California, Sherman says he threw himself into equine and art therapy, among other treatments that were provided.

“It felt like life or death,” he said.

These days, Sherman is a different man than he was before, “When I was in my one-bedroom apartment in downtown San Diego — overweight, miserable, untreated for PTSD, isolating myself from the world, possibly suicidal,” he said. Today, he’s stable and has a steady girlfriend, Nita Bryan, of Charlotte, N.C. He’s no longer on psychotropics and he’s able to process his emotions. He’s thinking about going to college for journalism, or writing a book, or maybe getting a commercial pilot’s license. Sherman says he’s once again looking forward to what lies ahead.

Still, even after the intensive months-long therapy regiment and at the tail end of his Gold Star quest, the lines in his face hint at a difficult past. Emotion comes quickly; tears spill unhindered. His chair is squared to the door so he can see if anyone enters.

Finding peace

Of the dozens of interviews that he’s conducted, Sherman says one, in particular, stands out in his mind.

“When I was in Hawaii, I met a Gold Star spouse, McKenna Scobie,” he said. “Her husband (Army Sgt. Drew Scobie) was an aerial sensor operator on a MC-12 (a type of reconnaissance plane).”

Sgt. Scobie was on a nighttime flight in Afghanistan in 2014 when the aircraft crashed, also killing another soldier.

 

In a video interview recorded earlier this year by Sherman, McKenna Scobie explains that her family and close friends held a memorial ceremony on Makapuʻu Beach near their house.

“This was Drew’s favorite surf break,” McKenna Scobie says in the video, pointing toward the crashing waves. “This was exactly where we laid him to rest, in February, after the funeral. … It was a very cold and a very big surf day. I remember that I was pregnant (with their second child, a daughter). My mom didn’t want me to paddle out there, but nothing was going to stop me from putting him to rest.”

They wrapped his ashes in Pu olu to make a traditional Hawaiian ti leaf urn, and, as her father stood on the rocky shoreline offering prayers,McKenna Scobie swam into the surf.

“We let him go under the water. My sister-in-law and I both went down,” she remembered, “and swam back up through his ashes. It was really beautiful. We were surrounded by his best friends, family, lots of loved ones.”

Before going home, “Everybody got the best waves they’d gotten in a long time,” she said.

Their daughter, who McKenna Scobie named Drew, is now about 4 years old and carries a photograph of her father whenever she visits the beach, Sherman said.

Another time, Sherman says he climbed Gold Star Peak in Alaska with the family of Army Cpl. Eric Wozencraft, who died in 2006. The week leading up to the climb was stormy. The peaks and passes began filling with snow. For a while, it seemed like he might have to cancel the trek.

But everything changed that morning.

“The rain stopped. The fog lifted,” Sherman said. “I’m spiritual, not religious. But it seemed like, throughout this whole journey, there have been little nods — ‘You’re on the right path. Keep going’ — it seemed like the mountains allowed us to climb that day.”

The hike represented more than a physical climb for Sherman. He brought with him the shared loss of 48 families connected by a common bond of grief, one from each of the lower 48 states, and his own bottled-up trauma.

“I carried every story with me up that mountain and I read the names of all the fallen heroes I had documented,” Sherman said. The climb took him about four hours to complete.

The air was brisk;
the day was calm.

Andy Castillo, a veteran of Operation Enduring Freedom, is the features editor at the Greenfield Recorder. He holds a master’s degree in creative nonfiction and can be reached at acastillo@recorder.com.

How to connect

If you or anyone you know is experiencing thoughts of suicide, please reach out for help immediately. Call the Veterans Crisis Line at 1-800-273-8255 and press 1 or dial 911.

Additionally, there will be a training for first responders, clinicians and other caregivers on treating veterans suffering from PTSD on Tuesday, Nov. 5, at the Baystate Education Center in Holyoke. Anyone who wishes to go must register beforehand. More information can be obtained by calling the Upper Pioneer Valley Veterans’ Services District at 413-772-1571. The district’s Resource and Referral Center can be found at 294 Main St. in downtown Greenfield.

For more information on Gold Star Dirt, visit goldstardirt.org. Follow Sherman’s journey at facebook.com/GoldStarDirt or on Twitter, @dirt_gold. Sherman can be reached at mediacoordinator@goldstardirt.org.




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