What some may not know is this wall was not the first memorial wall I had attempted. In 2011, I set out to memorize everyone who died on 9-11 and the plan was to write out the names in alphabetical order on 9-11-2011 (the 10 year anniversary). I was cruising along at a very strong pace until about mid July and I was at a local hamburger joint I frequent in Ft Worth (Jakes Hamburgers). There was almost 3,000 names and I was approaching 2,700. I was in the home stretch…almost there.
Then I had the idea, ‘I am going to read the stories of these people to make the memories stronger.’ I Googled and found the story of a young girl who was on one of the planes and so excited to be going to Disneyland. She was 5 years old. In the restaurant that day my eyes filled with tears thinking of this little girl. I closed my laptop, closed my book with the 9-11 names and I never went back to the names. It was too emotional for me. I didn’t hit my goal…Sept 11 came and went with no memory wall. The story of the little girl had derailed me. I couldn’t continue.
The next year in 2012 when I started the Afghanistan Wall I refused to allow myself to read the stories. I kept it strictly names and didn’t allow myself to get attached or emotional. That all changed with PFC Austin Staggs.
Feb 28th, 2013 I was writing the wall for the first time in Ft Worth. I heard the name ‘Austin Staggs’ in the crowd and my assistant came to me and said, ‘There is a woman in the crowd who knows someone on the wall.’ I turned around and said, ‘Ma’am do you know someone on the wall?’ She replied, ‘Yes, Austin Staggs. He was my grandson.’ My heart sank. I had no idea family members would show up and she was the first. I replied, ‘It will be about an hour before I get to his name.’ She pulled up a chair and sat and patiently waited for me to write his name.
2 hours later I turned around and said, ‘I am so sorry it has taken me so long but I am about to write his name.’ She replied, ‘I am glad it took so long his mom is here now.’
Austin had died with several other men and they knew all their names. When I got close to his name I went to the wall and wrote…
Staff Sgt….when I wrote that his grandmother said, ‘That’s Curtis’. It was, but the way she said it was so personal. To me it was always just a name – Staff Sgt Curtis Oakes. To her it was Curtis. I then wrote — SGT — and she said, ‘That’s Barry.’ Again it was but to me it had always been Sgt Barry Jarvis a full name..to her it was Barry.
My hand was trembling when I wrote,’ Private First Class Austin Staggs‘. I could audibly hear them breaking down. It was all I could do to keep my composure but I did. I turned and hugged his mom and grandmother. They are incredibly nice people.
But that wasn’t the end. His mom invited me to the house that Austin grew up in and a month later I stood in Austin’s bedroom. As I looked at his room and got a sense of who he was it was too much for me. His mom said, ‘I can’t even text him’ when she did a single tear fell for me. It was the only outward emotion I showed during this entire process. I saw the path he would play in in the woods behind his house and listened to the stories his mom shared about Austin.
I never allowed the list to get to personal. Oh sure, I had plenty of personal reasons I did the memory wall but I kept it at an emotional arms length. That was until Austin Staggs. Since then I have let my guard down but Austin was the first.