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A Mission Born of Loss

Gold Star 0919
Gold Star 0919

Jane Horton hadn't planned for this. Her husband, Oklahoma Army National Guard Spc. Christopher Horton, was killed in Afghanistan on Sept. 9, 2011.

But her loss spawned a passion. And in that passion was born a mission to serve the families of fallen soldiers. That mission has inspired others to serve, has spurred legislation and is driving change in the U.S. military.

Nearly a decade after her loss, Horton works in the Pentagon as a senior advisor in the Office of the Secretary of Defense, Personnel and Readiness. As such, she advocates on behalf of veterans, service members and Gold Star families, sharing their stories and her own wherever she can.

She is also working with Gen. Joseph L. Lengyel, the chief of the National Guard Bureau, to explore ways the Guard can better support its Gold Star families.

Before moving to the nation’s capital to advocate on behalf of Gold Star families, and before losing her husband, Horton’s advocacy began on a much smaller scale, as she reached out to strangers suffering their own loss.

Staff Sgt. Kirk Owen, also an Oklahoma Guardsman with the 45th Infantry Brigade Combat Team, was killed Aug. 2 in Paktia province, Afghanistan. He was a scout with 1st Battalion, 279th Infantry. He was the third soldier from the 45th IBCT killed during the deployment.

Shortly after, Horton reached out to the Owen family.

“Jane sought us out after dad died,” says Kylie Owen Willis. “She said my father’s death was the first time she had ever seen her husband cry. She came to my mom and my sister and I. She wanted to make sure we knew she was there for us.”

Willis, too, has now made helping Gold Star families her life’s work. She is enrollment coordinator for the Children of Fallen Patriots Foundation, headquartered in Northern Virginia. The nonprofit provides college scholarships and educational counseling to military children who have lost a parent in the line of duty. Last year, Willis became the first Gold Star child appointed to the Army’s Survivor Advisory Working Group, which provides senior leaders with advice and recommendations regarding the concerns of Gold Star families.

Willis’ service has been, in part, inspired by Horton’s. Tragedy brought them together.

Weeks after Staff Sgt. Owen died, Spc. Horton was killed when his unit came under attack from small-arms fire. He was a sniper, also assigned to 1st Battalion, 279th Infantry. Two other soldiers were also killed in the attack. In all, 14 Oklahoma Guardsmen would die in Afghanistan.

Horton was living in Collinsville, Oklahoma, outside of Tulsa at the time. Her career of advocacy began the same year she lost her husband. While he was deployed, she served as an intern for Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., now the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Later, once the 45th IBCT returned home, she helped organize a barbecue at the Owen home.

At that time, neither family had heard much from the returned soldiers. Horton thought the outing would help break the ice between the Gold Star families and the last people to see their loved ones alive.

They invited about 50 soldiers. Most of them came.

Horton learned that many of the soldiers wanted to be more involved with the families, but didn’t know how. They were still grieving, too, she says. The barbecue was therapeutic and helped create long-lasting connections.

“I’ve tried to stay pretty close to the people that were with my husband,” Horton says. “They were with him during his most intimate moments — including when he gave his last breath. I wasn’t able to be there with them, but I will forever cherish them for being there.”

“I wanted to make the cost of freedom real to the American people, to Congress, to our government."

—Jane Horton, Gold Star Wife & Senior Advisor, Office of the Secretary of Defense, Personnel and Readiness

ABOUT A YEAR AFTER Spc. Horton died, the Owen family helped Horton pack up her home in Oklahoma and move halfway across the country with no specific plan for what would happen next.

“I had to leave Oklahoma,” she recalls. “It was a point in my life where I knew if I stayed then I would sink. I knew I was supposed to go advocate, but I didn’t really know how or why. But I knew it was something I wanted to do. I wanted to make the cost of freedom real to the American people, to Congress, to our government.”

Horton began by literally knocking on the doors of members of Congress. That same year, Gen. Ray Odierno, then the Army chief of staff, appointed her to the Survivor Advisory Working Group. In the years since she has advocated on behalf of specific legislation while working for a number of organizations serving veterans and military families.

Those efforts have led Horton to Afghanistan on four different occasions. She spent years trying to make the trek before succeeding for the first time in March 2016, when she accompanied Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, as a special assistant and ombudsman to the troops. She was the first Gold Star wife to visit Afghanistan.

“I desperately wanted to go. I wanted to see where my husband gave his last breath, where his blood is in the soil, where most people don’t even know why we’re there,” she says. “I wanted to learn more. Whether I like it or not, Afghanistan will always have my heart because it’s literally where I lost the other half of my heart.”

“Most people will go straight to closure. I don’t know if closure is a real thing. I don’t know if that’s something in America we make up because it makes it sound pretty that the pain ends,” she says. “The pain never ends because where there’s such love, there will always be a void.”

In a way, Horton says she felt like stepping on the ground in Afghanistan was a show of strength.

“The enemy may have killed my husband but they didn’t win and they never will,” she says. “It was important to show I was not afraid, that there’s hope for the future there. It was one of the most profound experiences in my entire life.”

“If I have to take out trash to help Gold Star families, I'll do that."

—Jane Horton

ON RETURN TRIPS to Afghanistan, Horton was honored by President Ashraf Ghani, who thanked her on behalf of the country for the sacrifices made by all Gold Star families.

“There’s not a word in the English language to explain the heaviness I felt,” she says. “Not in a bad way, but just the heaviness of that burden of the sacrifice America has given. My own pain and my own husband was just a small minute piece of the massive sacrifice.”

Willis decided to follow Horton’s path to Washington, D.C. But not before finding her own, unique path.

“I was 15 when dad was killed. For the longest time, I tried to run from the fact that I was a Gold Star kid,” she says.

After receiving scholarships from the Children of Fallen Patriots Foundation and other organizations, she originally went to the University of Arkansas.

“I wanted to be on my own, I wanted to go somewhere where nobody knew me and knew what happened,” she says. But separated from her family and other support, Willis struggled with depression and anxiety issues. She nearly failed out of school before she decided to return home.

“That was the point when I realized I needed to get myself together, otherwise I was going to be miserable,” Willis says. She eventually finished her degree at Oklahoma State University and began working for the Children of Fallen Patriots Foundation There, for the first time, she found a community of people her age with similar experiences.

“I don’t have to explain myself to them and they don’t have to explain themselves to me,” she says. “It’s been something I never had before.”

As Willis has grown more comfortable in her role, she, like Horton, has become more vocal in pushing for support for Gold Star families. While helping others, she says she is also furthering her father’s legacy. Horton says her efforts are focused on keeping Gold Star families from being forgotten and that more than just words are offered in support.

“It’s never really been about personal goals or expectations, it’s been for the community,” Horton says of her career since her husband’s death. “I expect more for my community. I expect more empowerment programs for families and for them not to be forgotten. That’s my goal.”

“If I have to take out trash to help Gold Star families, I’ll do that,” she adds. “I’ll go where I need to go to make that happen.”

Horton has successfully advocated for the creation of special Gold Star advocates in the military and for the expansion of education benefits.

A bill introduced by Rep. Trent Kelly, R-Miss., earlier this year was named in her husband’s honor. H.R. 107, the Sgt. 1st Class Sean Cooley and Spc. Christopher Horton Congressional Gold Star Family Fellowship Program Act, would establish a special program that would bring Gold Star family members into the offices of members of Congress.

“I’m happy people care. I’m happy they appreciate my husband’s sacrifice and I know they do,” Horton says. “But there has to be some action behind that. There have to be some programs.”

Willis agrees.

“I think one of the biggest things that people don’t realize about Gold Star families and Gold Star kids in particular is that we want to continue to serve,” she says. “It’s a way to give back and continue serving like our parents did. That experience, sharing our expertise, that outweighs anything else we can be given.”