That has become a part of them and has influenced their lives, including their roles as team members at Carle Health.
Allen, Sheese and Swenson have lost someone close to them who was in active duty in the U.S. military. Memorial Day has special significance for them.
“Memorial Day is about honoring those who gave the ultimate sacrifice,” Sheese said.
Each year, Americans observe Memorial Day on the last Monday of May and honor those who died while serving in the U.S. military.
Allen, a radiology tech at Carle Foundation Hospital, is a Gold Star Mother, meaning she lost a child in the service of our country. Sheese, program manager for Epic IT Performance at Carle BroMenn Medical Center, and Swenson, strategic planning coordinator II for Carle Health Strategy and Development, are U.S. Army veterans who lost comrades in arms in Iraq. Sheese and Swenson also are co-leads of the Carle MVP (Military and Veteran Professionals), which is a Carle Inclusion Connection Group that serves team members who are veterans and their allies.
All three honor the fallen by serving the living.
“Mitch was a good kid,” Allen said of her son. “He made us laugh every day.”
Like the time, during football practice in high school, when he ran out of the woods with a pumpkin on his head.
“He always did something to make you smile,” his mother said. He never held a grudge and liked to help people.
That’s why he joined the Navy following graduation from high school in 2008. He became a hospital medic corpsman third class and was a member of the fleet marine force.
He died while in active duty in 2010 at age 20.
“I still live with it,” his mother said. “It’s a never-ending story. Some days, it’s hard to get out of bed. Other days, I can laugh. Some days, I can say his name. Other days, I can’t.”
“It’s my job that keeps me going,” the radiology tech said. “I know every day when I get up, somebody needs me today.”
When she sees patients for their X-rays, she tries to connect with them to make them more comfortable, especially those who are veterans. When they find out that Allen is a Gold Star Mother, veterans share some of their story with her.
Allen also has gotten involved in programs that honor members of the military who died in service. That includes the Woody Williams Foundation, which is raising money to build a Gold Star Family memorial monument in Allen’s hometown of Watseka, and the Tribute to Fallen Soldiers Memorial Torch Motorcycle Ride.
On Memorial Day, she will visit Mitch at Abraham Lincoln National Cemetery in Elwood, Ill. “It’s a sad day.”
She encourages others to go to a cemetery on Memorial Day, find the gravestone of a veteran, Google their name to learn their history and thank them for giving their all.
When meeting a Gold Star Family member, Allen suggesting saying “’Tell me about your child. Tell me how they lived.’
“That reminds them that their child is not forgotten.”
Colleen Sheese and Eric Swenson
Sheese served in the Army from 2001-05. She was in Iraq from 2003-04, in the 234th signal battalion, running communications systems during the war against Al-Qaeda.
Swenson served in the Army from 2005-09. He was in Iraq from 2006-07, in the 2nd Infantry Division, as an intelligence analyst during the war against Al-Qaeda.
Sheese and her unit provided communications to troops in the air and on the ground.
“We lost a lot of people,” she said. “You’d hear about it every day. It becomes a part of your day to day. You’d go to bed listening to artillery. You’d wake up listening to artillery.”
One comrade in arms who was killed was her friend, Karina.
“Her helicopter was shot down over our heads when she was on her way home for the holidays. Karina was a good friend.”
Swenson and his team supported missions with planning, briefings, surveillance and coordinated strikes. He uses these strategic planning skills every day in his role at Carle Health.
“That was during the 2006-07 surge,” he said. “It was non-stop combat. We had a lot of casualties. We lost so many, I don’t remember the exact number.”
Sheese said “Every single day, you are focused on doing your job. You’re trying to keep everything working and trying to stay alive.”
When Sheese returned stateside, she went to therapy and experienced the value of speaking with other veterans. Later, she got involved in the Carle Health MVP group to give team members who are veterans a safe space to talk.
“We’re trying to help veterans and we’re trying to help Carle,” she said. “You can’t really fully understand unless you’ve been there. The best thing for veterans is to have a safe place where they can talk with other veterans.”
In addition to monthly meetings and meet-and-greets, the MVP group honors veterans who are patients at Carle Foundation Hospital with a handwritten note delivered to their room. The group also places a magnet on the doorframe, so people entering the room know that the patient is a veteran. The group also provides homemade quilts to team members caring for a veteran at the end of their life and for Carle Hospice patients who are veterans. The MVP group participates in events such as a flag raising on Veterans Day and helped to plant a garden at the Danville Veterans Administration Illiana Health Care facility to honor prisoners of war and service members missing in action.
“When you’re in the military, you’re serving everyone in the United States,” Swenson said. “Working in healthcare, we make the same pledge, serving our patients and communities. Now as a civilian, I want to continue serving others and I try to do that well.”
Swenson wants people to spend Memorial Day enjoying time with family and friends.
“When people can have a beer, fire up the barbecue and have a happy day, to me, that’s ‘Mission Accomplished,’” Swenson said. “If you take time to think about the sacrifice of veterans, even better.”
“I came home (from the Army) and wanted to live my life and I went to nursing school,” she said. “I want to be the best mom, wife, nurse and faith community member that I can be.”
She finds motivation from her comrades in arms who didn’t make it back. She wants to honor them by living a full life serving her family and Carle patients, team members and communities.
“I came home with this fervor of living life,” she said. Yes, she spends part of Memorial Day weekend at a parade and placing flowers at graves.
“But we also can honor those who made the ultimate sacrifice by enjoying life. We can celebrate because people died for our country.”