Monica McNeal's son, Lance Corporal Eric Ward, was killed while serving in Afghanistan in 2010. He was only 19 years old. But it's impossible to meet Monica without meeting Eric. There are traces of him everywhere.
"I have a tattoo on my wrist," she said, showing me the cursive writing. "It's Gaelic and it means 'Fearless or no fear' and Eric had it over his heart."
Instead of a purse, she carries a camouflage backpack made out of Eric's uniform.
"So, like, here's his pants pocket. He's always on my heart, he's always here. There's a patch of his picture. This is his actual uniform. There was a piece of lint, that of course as a mother I was so pleased to have his lint in his pocket, that I put it in a little bag and I put it in my little favorite box. The fact that I knew he wore this uniform really means a ton."
Monica is a Gold Star Mother, an organization formed after World War I to support moms who lost a child in a war.
"It is an unbelievable organization. It's a group of women that, obviously, you don't have to say anything. Everyone knows why we're there, none of us want to be there. We're there really to support. Everyone is at a different grieving process and we have to understand and respect that. But we're all available 24/7. I've had the pleasure of traveling and staying at a Gold Star Mom's house. They open their homes to you because there's that mutual bond."
Gold Star Mothers is how Monica met Mary Bradshaw, a Steilacoom woman who lost her son, Lieutenant Brian Bradshaw.
"Brian was an amazing young man. He was full of humor, laughter, practical jokes and he had the best hugs."
Mary was a nurse in the Army, and her husband served as well, so she was proud when her son announced he wanted to join the military.
"I kissed him goodbye at the airport and when you send your child off to war you assume they're going to come back. He was too good. There was no way he was going to get killed. On June 25th I was called into my boss's office. There were two officers standing there and when I saw the chaplain's cross I knew right away that I had lost my biggest treasure."
At her son's funeral, Mary was presented with the gold star pin that she wore on her sweater the day I met her.
"I became a Gold Star Mother. It's a group that nobody wants to join, but is very welcoming. You become a member whether you want to or not."
The group offers support, but it's also a way for the women to keep busy. They do things like send care packages to Marines overseas, who don't have family, and last year they raised enough money to buy 600 wreaths to place on veterans graves between Tahoma and Evergreen.
"I was one of those moms who was always at the PTA doing all of those crazy things. I haven't changed," Monica said. "So what I do today, I honor vets. I do events, I do promotions, I do anything I can do for education and awareness of what is the importance of our military. I did not grow up in a military family and I've learned so much of their daily sacrifice. Every time they have a deployment, what it means to the families, missing birthdays. It's a very service-ful life and I try to help with anything I can do."
Monica and Mary say the grief of losing a child is always there, but they have learned to cope with the day to day.
"My family, I think I really surprised them because I think they really thought I'd be in the fetal position in the hall closet," said Monica. "But when Eric left that day, when we were at Camp Lejeune, he hugged me and said, 'Mom, be a strong Marine mom.' I will never forget that. I got in my rental car as he got on the bus. I sat and cried for an hour, because I couldn't drive, and I missed my flight. But I was looking around and I saw all those moms with infant children, pregnant, and I just said, you know what, I can be a strong Marine mom. I'm leading that and that's how I lead my life, that I can do that for others."
If you're interested in turning a uniform into a bag, here's the company that did Monica's: http://heroonmyarm.com/