Editor’s note: This is the first of two parts about taking care of Maine veterans.
In Heather Hutchins’ room in Solon is a life-size cutout of the image of her husband, Andrew Hutchins. She keeps it even though he has been dead for 1 1/2 years. At the age of 20, he was killed by insurgents in eastern Afghanistan when she was pregnant with their first child.
The child, named Allyssa, never met her father. And even though she’s only 15 months old, she has a sense of who he is. When her mother, 23, asks where her daddy is, she points to the cutout.
On Father’s Day this Sunday, Allyssa will spend part of the day with another symbol of her father: his gravesite at the Maine Veterans Memorial Cemetery in Augusta. There, the U.S. Army will perform a military funeral honors ceremony. After they fold the flag over his headstone, they will present it to Allyssa.
As the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs adapts to the changing needs of troops returning from combat or overseas missions, it’s important to remember what is being done right.
It was the Army soldiers’ idea to give the child a folded flag; they did not know the corporal, who grew up in New Portland. They performed the ceremony of respect and remembrance for Heather when he was killed in Nov. 2010, and they want to do the same for his daughter.
It’s a small but meaningful act. When the Army takes care of its own, it makes us take stock of what others can do, even if it’s to simply record the story.The Father’s Day message is to recognize and be thankful for what you have. Loss is not undone.
Heather knows this well. She describes the process of healing as learning how to live for herself again. She’ll start online college classes in August to study dentistry. She bought land in Solon and will one day build a house. She imagines her daughter going to schools in the district where she and Andrew met.
Meanwhile she’s raising Allyssa, in which she sees much of Andrew. “The things she’ll crack a smile at, I’m just like, oh my gosh, that’s your daddy right there,” she said. “She’s very independent, which is definitely a trait from her father.”
The bad days are farther apart now, she said, but she doesn’t expect them to ever go away. She counts on her family, Andrew’s family and his friends in the Army for support. But her biggest provider of support has turned out to be Allyssa, she said. That’s because when she’s having a bad day and Allyssa walks over and sits in her lap, she can’t help laughing.
As she learns how to adjust to life without her husband, she is also learning how to be a mother on her own. “You don’t know how you’re going to do that when the person who you thought you were going to be with for the rest of your life is no longer there,” she said. And though she would give anything to have Andrew back, she said she knows: “I don’t have to have him here with me to keep going on.”
His memory remains. She still has his text messages on her phone. She will keep his last name. She will continue to share photographs and videos of him with Allyssa. And she’ll keep photos of Sunday’s ceremony to share with her daughter when she’s older.
It’s customary for the family member accepting the folded flag to take it out of the soldier’s hands — an action that might be difficult for a one-year old. But Heather has given the honor guard detail specific directions to hold still until her daughter reaches out and takes the flag. It’s for her, after all, in memory of her father.