When my brother Marine Cpl. William ‘Billy’ Crouse was deployed to Afghanistan at the age of 22, my mom told the rest of us, ‘I just have that awful, awful feeling: He’s not coming home.’ We all tried to tell her not to worry. Yet six weeks later, on Dec. 21, 2010, Billy died after an enemy bomb exploded near him. When the officers came to notify my mother, she fell to the ground as soon as she saw them. All three of them went to her, helped her up and continued checking in with her every step of the way as she waited for Billy’s body to be brought home.
I think that a lot of mothers who lose a child in service might want to cut themselves off from the military, and I can understand that. But that’s not our mom. She appreciated how those officers stood by her and, then, how all the guys in the two units Billy served with reached out to us—even while they were dealing with their own grief and the stress of deployment. So she returned the favor: She keeps in touch with many of them on Facebook and through e-mail and visits when they’re home. She sends care packages to the guys and is constantly looking for ways to raise awareness and support for American troops. She also put together a $1,000 scholarship in Billy’s name that is given to a local high school senior she feels best embodies my brother’s sense of service and loyalty.
Due to my mother’s generosity, warmth and support for the soldiers from Billy’s units—treating them as if they were her own children—they call her ‘Big Mama.’ My mother lost one son but gained thousands, and she has truly become a mother to them all. From the start, my mom said she wanted to find some good in our family’s tragedy, to use our experience to help others so that Billy’s death would not be in vain. So she pushes forward and extends her heart, as broken as it is, to the men and women still in service. She truly believes they are all heroes. I don’t know if she realizes what a hero she is to all of us.”
In Her Words
Q How did you feel when your son was deployed?
A Billy is my second son to serve in the military. His older brother, Nathan, was in the Navy during the Gulf War. But somehow, in my soul, I knew Nathan would come home and it would be OK. With Billy, I knew he would not come home. I had a choice: I could throw a fit and risk my son turning his back on me, or I could support him 100 percent. So even though my heart and mind were screaming no, I thought, I love my son
and I have to support him.
Q What keeps you connected to the military now, almost three years after your son’s death?
A During Billy’s memorial service at Camp Lejeune, I looked straight into the eyes of these men who gave so much. There were 500 Marines sitting in the auditorium with me on that day—big, powerful men. And when they came up to hug me, they had tears spilling out. Their pain was horrific. And I said to myself, “I will not leave them. I will make some good come out of my son’s death.” So I embraced them. I engaged. In the military, they say “You man up.” That’s what I’ve done.
Q What is the most rewarding part of your work supporting the troops?
A When I get an e-mail message or see on Facebook that one of my boys who came home has been able to get married or have a baby or buy a house. This war is ugly, even for those who are lucky enough to come home. So when I see that they’ve been able to find happiness, that delights my heart.
Q What advice would you give to another mother who has lost a child in the military?
A Everybody grieves differently, so don’t let anybody tell you how to do it. For instance, in my home I keep a shrine to my son with his photos and his medals [some of which are pictured above]. And even if you’re hurting, just keep loving, because the worst thing that can happen is that a sacrifice be forgotten.