July 2018

The Matthew Freeman Project

Amidst Tragedy, Gold Star Mother Finds Healing In Honoring Son’s Memory
Volume 101, Issue 7
Author: 

Nancy S. Lichtman

A newly commissioned 2ndLt Matthew Freeman and his mother, Lisa, stand together in Memorial Hall on his graduation day from the Naval Academy in 2002. Today, Freeman’s name is enshrined in the hall among the other graduates who were killed in combat.
Courtesy of Lisa Freeman

Mom, Dad, I can never repay you for all you have done for me. You made me into the man I am today. I hope that I have made you proud. That has always been my goal. I love you both so much. Tell the girls that I love them and couldn’t be a prouder older brother. I have always tried to be an honorable man and I truly believe in what we are doing here. I am doing this for my family, so that they need not fear; my country, so that it can be a beacon of light for the entire world; the men around me, because no one could ask for a more august company than the men of the U.S. Armed Forces; and finally, I do this for myself so that I might know the measure of myself and in the end not be found wanting. I believe that it is my duty to fight and having done all that I can to simply stand against this and all the evil works upon this Earth.

Captain Matthew Freeman’s final journal entry, written five days before he was killed in action in Kapisa Province, Afghanistan, Aug. 7, 2009.

Almost nine years have passed since her son’s death, and as she reflects today on the events surrounding the tragedy, Lisa Freeman can’t help but recognize the messages and “signs” that Captain Matthew Freeman unwittingly left behind for her—ones that would help carry her through the hardest days of her life and would guide her to honor his memory by continuing his legacy of service.

There was his final journal entry, addressed to her and her husband, Gary, a retired Navy commander, just five days before Matthew was killed by Taliban insurgents during Operation Brest Thunder, Aug. 7, 2009, while serving as an individual augment with 4th Marine Regiment in the Shpee Valley of Kapisa Province, Afghanistan. A C-130 pilot, Matthew had enthusiastically volunteered to leave the cockpit for a ground tour as a fire support team leader and company advisor to the 1st Battalion, 3rd Brigade, 201st Corps, Afghan National Army.

There was the time seven years earlier, at his graduation from the United States Naval Academy in 2002, when Matthew, known as “Matt” to his family and friends, took her into Memorial Hall to show her the names of fallen graduates.

“These are the real heroes, Mom. These are the ones who died fighting for their country,” he told her. At the time, she thought it an odd place to visit during such a celebratory occasion, never imagining that her son would one day be listed among them.

There was the poignant moment between mother and son when Matt, stationed in Okinawa, Japan, with Marine Aerial Refueler Transport Squadron (VMGR) 152, took leave to visit his family in his hometown of Richmond Hill, Ga., just outside Savannah. He gave his mother a challenge coin inscribed with a scripture from the book of Ephesians: “Wear the Armor of God.”

“Mom, you don’t have to worry about me. God will be with me,” Matt told her as he handed her the coin. It’s a memory Lisa still replays in her mind—the last time she would ever see her son alive.

And then there was a phone call from Afghanistan a few days before his death, during which Matt uttered the last words that his mother would ever hear him speak.

“Mom, can you get a fundraiser going before school starts?” he asked her. “The kids are so cute; the people are so nice. They’d rather have pens and paper than food and water. Can you get some school supplies sent over here for me?”

It was just the type of request Lisa would expect from her son, who from a young age continually displayed a propensity to look out for everybody else, she said. He had a big heart and was always the first to raise his hand to volunteer when people needed help and was well-known and loved in the Richmond Hill community. His loyalty to country, Corps and family—his parents; two sisters; and his wife Teresa, his high school sweetheart and an Air Force officer who he married just weeks before he was killed—was unwavering.

Before she had the chance to talk to Matt again, Marines in uniform would show up on the first day of school at the middle school where she had taught for many years to deliver the news that would be any mother’s worst nightmare.

“I collapsed right there, and everything changed at that point,” said Lisa, recalling the devastation she felt that day and the turmoil she endured in the days to come. She relied heavily on her Christian faith and on the knowledge that her son died a hero, having been posthumously awarded a Bronze Star with combat “V” for his unwavering courage during a firefight in which he led his Marines to a rooftop position in order to better observe the enemy’s firing position. It was there that he was mortally wounded after engaging several insurgents.

Matt, a third-generation naval aviator with a dream of one day attending test pilot school like his father, loved to fly but, his mother said, he felt truly fulfilled working with junior Marines on the ground.

“He came home after training with these guys and said, ‘Mom, I love to be a pilot, I loved what I did, but my favorite thing has been working with these guys,” Lisa recalled. “He really loved people and he really enjoyed working with these young guys.”

In the midst of her grief, Lisa also relied on the support of her local community, including the people who completely lined a 17-mile stretch of road to pay their respects as her son’s body was brought home. And then there were all those who helped make her son’s final wish, to provide school supplies to Afghan children, a reality. The Matthew Freeman Project: Pens and Paper for Peace was born, sending 16,000 pounds of school supplies to Afghanistan and Iraq, where American troops put them directly in the hands of the local children.

“With other money that was raised in his honor, seven libraries were built in Afghanistan for the children,” said Lisa.

But as the situation in Afghanistan evolved, the pens and paper were being received by community leaders rather than by forward-deployed U.S. troops. It became nearly impossible for Lisa and her team to confirm whether the local children were receiving them. This prompted Lisa to contact the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS), looking for advice on how to refocus the Matthew Freeman Project. How could she best continue to honor her son’s memory?

“They said we really could use some support for our siblings of the fallen,” said Lisa. “That they were what they called ‘the forgotten mourners.’ ”

Lisa knew right away that it was the perfect opportunity. She had watched her two daughters grieve after Matt’s death—and noticed that people didn’t seem to consider the impact on them as much as on her and his wife.

“So many people came up to them and said, ‘How’s your mom?’ ‘How’s Teresa?’ and wanted to know how we were doing,” remembers Lisa. “And my girls would look at me later and say, ‘But nobody said, how are you doing?’ ”

Yet the loss of their older brother had a profound effect on their lives; both stopped their college educations and moved back home for a period of time after Matt’s death. Recognizing that there weren’t any scholarship programs exclusively for Gold Star siblings, Lisa decided to take what resources the Matthew Freeman Project had and shift its focus to these forgotten mourners.

Through private donations and funds raised at the organization’s annual Captain Matthew Freeman Memorial 5K run and Georgia’s Run for the Fallen, the Matthew Freeman Project awarded its first Gold Star Sibling scholarship in 2012. Applicants must be siblings of a fallen military member who was killed while deployed in a combat zone and must be entering or attending an accredited university or college. They also are required to write an essay describing their relationship with their sibling and how his or her death affected them.

“I can tell you that the siblings are very broken,” Lisa said, adding that many have come to her and said that their application essay was the first time they had expressed their grief on paper, an act that helped them through the healing process.

In 2015, the Matthew Freeman Project scholarship expanded to include siblings of servicemembers who died from combat-related suicides. Each recipient is awarded $2,000 the first year and can apply for a $1,000 renewal each subsequent year.

Lisa acknowledged that the monetary awards may not be huge, but it’s the only program of its kind for siblings, and she tells each recipient that she considers it a gift from their fallen brother or sister.

In 2014, an unexpected door opened that would give the Matthew Freeman Project yet another purpose. A young woman from Lisa’s church recently had lost her brother, a medic and Silver Star recipient, in combat. She tearfully sat in Lisa’s living room and explained that she and her family hadn’t been able to get anything of her brother’s because his wife was hesitant to part with his things.

As Lisa, a talented seamstress, sat and consoled the grieving sister, she had an idea. She remembered that shortly after Matt was killed, her cousin had bears made for the Freeman family using Matt’s uniforms. They were a tangible source of comfort.

“Well, maybe she would give you some uniforms and I can make bears for your children and for her two little girls, who were his daughters,” Lisa said to her. A few weeks later, the woman came back to Lisa’s house with a bag of uniforms in hand.

Lisa lovingly sewed the bears by hand and scheduled a presentation to the family during a Sunday church service. The local news got wind of her endeavor, and a CNN crew showed up at her house to film a segment that would air on Memorial Day. The “Matthew Bears” quickly gained nationwide attention. What had initially been a one-time gift to a local family became something that Lisa couldn’t get off her mind. She would wake up every morning thinking about the bears, feeling as though it was an endeavor she was meant to pursue. But she struggled with the effects of degenerative disc disease, and sitting and sewing for hours put her in tremendous pain. How could she take on the commitment that growing the “Matthew Bear” program would require?

Clarity came to her when she opened up her email inbox after she was featured on CNN. There were more than 1,000 emails.

“As I started to open these things up, over half of them were seamstresses from all over the country. Even England and Australia. They were from everywhere,” she recalled. She realized she could make the dream a reality by establishing a network of volunteers. “I could just see Matthew smiling,” she added.

Lisa and her daughter built databases and established an organizational system for fielding both requests for bears and offers to sew them. She started matching families with seamstresses as geographically closely as she could, providing the opportunity for many of them to meet each other. From newborns to grandparents, Matthew Bears have provided comfort for more than 600 grieving loved ones to date.

“So many of these seamstresses are people that wish they could do something to help our military and this was their gift to be able to do that,” said Lisa. She speaks of the stories she hears from them—how they cried as they tore the seams apart, and the emotion that goes into working with these uniforms—and knows that she was meant for this.

Lisa sends the seamstresses patterns, gold stars, eyes and a special “Matthew Bear” label along with a letter, and the family requesting the bears sends the uniforms directly to the seamstress they are paired with.

For Aaron Benjamin, whose brother, Master Sergeant Adam F. Benjamin, USMC, was killed in Helmand Province, Afghanistan, in 2009, while serving as an Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) technician, the priceless gift of bears made from his brother’s uniforms stirred up a lot of emotion for him and his family.

“He was a model Marine. Everybody loved him,” said Benjamin of his brother, referencing story after story the family heard from his fellow Marines after his death. “And the bears just topped it off. I was so happy that all of my siblings will have a piece of him all the time.”

When Aaron heard about Lisa’s endeavors with the Matthew Bears, he knew it was something he wanted to have done for his family—his mother, father, grandmother and 10 siblings. He gathered up his brother’s uniforms and contacted Lisa, with whom he immediately felt a bond.

“Lisa will do anything she can for anybody,” said Aaron. That included making sure the Benjamin family received the 13 bears he requested, thanks to the efforts of three different seamstresses. “She’s a wonderful person,” he added, expressing his gratitude for all she does to help his and other grieving families.

When Lisa Freeman remembers her son Matt, she thinks of his adventurous spirit, the big grin he always wore on his face, even in military photos—he wasn’t one for the “somber, tough guy looks,” she says—and his contagious laugh. And while she says she’d do just about anything to hear that laugh again, she also believes with all her heart that he is more alive than ever. He continues to leave her signs, but now they’re in the faces of the Gold Star siblings who receive scholarships in his name and the children who cling to the bears lovingly stitched from the uniforms of their fallen loved ones. And they’re in the stories that she continues to hear, and the letters and emails she continues to receive, from people whose lives Matt touched in so many ways. Touching the lives of others in his memory, said Lisa, has brought her healing from her family’s tragedy.

Author’s note: If you’re interested in assisting the Matthew Freeman Project by sewing bears or making a donation, or if you’d like to request a bear or apply for a Gold Star Sibling Scholarship, visit www.freemanproject.org.