- Associated Press - Saturday, July 23, 2016

PICKENS, S.C. (AP) - The third year has been the hardest for Yolanda Austin.

Her son, Barrett, was killed in Afghanistan in 2013, and she has found herself in a difficult place along the path to healing.

The wounds are still fresh in Barrett’s father, Curt, whose sense of loss is written deeply on his face.

The couple is taking some solace, however, in a photographic memorial called Remembering Our Fallen, part of a nationwide project to collect photos of all the members of the military who have lost their lives since Sept. 11, 2001.

The collection of photos has been completed in 16 states, including South Carolina.

“I’m just glad to know that people want to keep his memory alive,” Yolanda Austin said.

The memorial will be on public display at Dillard Funeral Home in Pickens through the end of August.

It includes photos and information about 93 fallen South Carolina servicemen and women, including two from Pickens County - Barrett Austin and Kimberly Hampton, both of Easley.

Hampton was the first female pilot killed in combat in U.S. history. Her helicopter was shot down over Fallujah, Iraq, on Jan. 2, 2004.

Some families have provided photos of their loved one as a child. The Austins posted a picture of their son as a smiling, sandy-haired 17-year-old, full of life and mischief and possibility.

Beside his military photo is a note on a yellow sticky pad from his mother: “Sweetpea, Forever mama’s Hero.”

The Austins visited the memorial for the first time July 19 and spoke with The Greenville News about their memories and emotions.

Why the third year after his death to an improvised explosive device has seemed more difficult, Yolanda isn’t sure. Maybe it’s part of moving through the five stages of grief, she said, or maybe it’s fear that his memory is slipping away as the wars in the Middle East rage on.

The Austins have clear memories, though, of the pain they felt during the days after their son’s vehicle was blown up on a road in Wardak Province.

It was on a Wednesday, his father remembers. April 17, 2013. Barrett was an Army combat engineer, and he had taken on one of the most dangerous assignments in the war: clearing the roadways of IED’s so troops could move to their target area.

On that day, the soldier who was supposed to be driving felt sick, so Barrett volunteered to take the wheel. The team had successfully swept their designated route and was returning to base when the vehicle struck an explosive that had been planted after the road had been cleared.

The blast’s impact ripped through the driver’s side door. Other members of the team were injured, but Barrett was the only one killed.

He had been in Afghanistan only a month.

Curt Austin was at work at aeSolutions in Greenville when he got a call that day. His son had been wounded, “and it didn’t look good,” he was told.

Because it was thought he might be helped in a more advanced medical facility, he was flown to Germany. His parents rushed to Ft. Stewart, Georgia, where Barrett had been stationed, to await word.

“It was three days of hell waiting to hear, trying to get information,” Curt said.

Finally, they were given a flight to Germany, still unsure of their son’s condition.

When they arrived, they found him on life support, with no brain activity.

“They told us there was nothing they could do,” his mother said.

His wife, Heather, was with him when he passed, along with his mom and his dad. It had been four days since the explosion.

His body was flown back to the Upstate, and a military guard solemnly loaded his remains in a hearse at the Greenville-Spartanburg International Airport in front of family and scores of supporters for the journey to Dillard Funeral Home, the same place where the memorial is now displayed.

In the days and weeks after his death, the family received an outpouring of support from the community that helped them through those dark hours.

Now, three years later, the pain is still there, and in some ways even harder to bear than before.

“Our lives have pretty much been turned upside down for all those three years,” Curt said.

Yolanda is now able to laugh at funny stories about Barrett told by her son’s friends and to talk about him. Curt finds it harder to think about the loss of his only son. Both take comfort in their faith, and the belief that they will see him again.

Their story is one of 93 memorialized in the Remembering Our Fallen display, and one of thousands in similar displays in other states.

The memorial was established by Bill and Evonne Williams, a Nebraska couple who read a newspaper story about a father whose pain and grief were even greater four years after his son had died in Iraq, because he felt his son had been forgotten.

In November 2010, with the backing of the local newspaper and financial support from several sponsors, including Bellevue University, the couple established the Remembering Our Fallen memorial for Nebraska service people killed since 9/11.

They went on to establish a nonprofit organization called Patriot Productions to support similar efforts in other states. The goal is to create similar memorials in each state and eventually to move all the state displays to one permanent location.

In the meantime, they are circulating from place to place, with Dignity Memorial, being the sponsor and custodian of the display in South Carolina, according to Andy Cone, area general manager. It was unveiled at the Statehouse in Columbia and has spent time in Greenville before coming to Pickens.

A placard set up at the display eloquently expresses the purpose and vision of the memorial.

“We cannot all pick up the sword - nor should we - but we owe our support and gratitude to those who do, and to their families,” it says.

“Each Fallen Hero, shown here, left behind family and friends who will never forget them and we must be there to support them.

“Remember their loved ones, continue to pray for them and speak their names . most importantly, speak their names.”

___

Information from: Anderson Independent-Mail, https://www.andersonsc.com

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