Meet Sgt. James McIlvaine of Olney, Md. – a handsome 26-year-old U.S. Marine, devoted husband, loving father of two young children and dedicated man anyone would want the privilege of calling a friend.
McIlvaine, known for having a splendid sense of humor that could make a room full of people roar with laughter, served in the U.S. military for nearly eight years – including combat missions in Afghanistan and Iraq.
A natural leader, he knew a thing or two about loyalty, love of his country, service and sacrifice.
In fact, he sacrificed his own life for your freedom.
On April 30, 2009, his five-man explosive ordnance disposal team retrieved a roadside bomb beside an Iraqi police station in Al Anbar province, Iraq. A robot was used to disarm the device, but when the bomb was being transported to a safe location, it exploded without warning.
The blast killed Sgt. McIlvaine instantly.
Several Iraqi policemen and two other team members were killed as well: Staff Sgt. Tony Wojciechowski and Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class Tyler Trahan.
Acting quickly, Staff Sgt. Dustin Velzeboer risked his own life to save the remaining crew as a trailer filled with explosives caught fire after the initial blast. The wounded Marine jumped into the truck and drove it away as quickly as possible. As soon as he was far enough away, Velzeboer ran for his life. A large explosion decimated the vehicle, but everyone, including Velzeboer, was shielded from the blast. The Marine Corps awarded Velzeboer a Bronze Star with “V” device for his courage that day in Iraq.
But the deaths of those Marines filled their families and friends with unbearable heartache practically unimaginable by those who haven’t experienced such profound loss.
Sgt. McIlvaine left behind his wife, Cheryl, and children, Michael and Alexa, who were just 7 and 3 at the time of their father’s death.
Joanne Cembrook, a stunning Virginia woman, is McIlvaine’s mother.
“He was just the most fun person to be with,” she told WND. “He was a joy to raise. He had a great sense of humor and was always coming up with things to say. From the time he was a little boy, he was always sensitive to other people’s feelings. He was just a really great guy.
“The only consolation we have is that he died doing what he loved to do.”
One posting on a Facebook page honoring McIlvaine’s memory states:
“For those that will fight for it, freedom has a flavor the protected shall never know.”
– Author unknown (widely attributed to L. Cpl Edwin L. “Tim” Craft, 1968.)
That statement rings true for many U.S. men and women fighting in uniform – and the families who love and support them.
Cembrook is now part of a Gold Star family, a designation reserved for family members of U.S. servicemen who have died in combat while serving their country.
This Memorial Day weekend, a new short film, “The Fence,” honors the experiences of those grieving Americans who have lost a parent, child, sibling or friend at war – and offers an inside glimpse of their struggle for those who’ve never faced a flag-draped coffin carrying their fallen hero.
The film’s national premier will take place at Arlington National Cemetery on May 26, 27 and 28. (A schedule of showings is available at the Arlington National Cemetery website.)
“The Fence” is about Arty Cooper, a fictional character who has lost his only son in the Iraq war. While he grieves and tries to heal, a refugee Iraqi family moves in next door. The discovery of his new neighbors dredges up Cooper’s anger and pain.
He reacts by shunning them and building a fence around his property, blocking them out – and his emotions in. When his neighbor’s young daughter goes missing, the community is shaken. Arty is suspected and finally confronts his pain and fear. He finds that the beginning of his healing comes from a most unexpected place.
“I felt that they did a really good job of showing what you initially feel like and the realization that you come to afterward,” Cembrook told WND. “Initially, [Arty Cooper] wants to close in and doesn’t want to have anything to do with Middle Easterners. But he later realizes that basically we’re all kind of the same.”
She said the filmmakers made a magnificent effort to honor the experiences of military families who have been through the tragedy of losing a loved one at war.
“I think they’re really portraying it in a realistic manner,” Cembrook said. “I don’t think that they’re trying to sensationalize it. That’s what we worry about as a Gold Star family – that people are going to try to sensationalize death and war. For not having gone through it themselves, and just going on what they’ve learned from people who have gone through it, they really are portraying the feelings we feel as parents.”
She noted that Gold Star families often struggle with determining which projects to rally behind.
“We get approached a lot about doing interviews and people wanting to capitalize on our loss,” she said. “This is the first time in three years that I’ve really come forward and said, ‘This is something that I really believe in and really support.'”
Filmed with the help of Connecticut’s own 144th MP Battalion, “The Fence” has been called “everything that is great about independent film.” Its cast and crew came from Connecticut, New York, California and even Europe to bring to life a poignant and powerful wartime story of loss and the journey to healing.
“The Fence” writer, director and actor Jimmy Driscoll plays the role of Cooper. Rich Lepoutre is executive producer of the film and CEO of Dreyfus Films, LLC. He became involved with the project immediately upon meeting Driscoll and reviewing the script.
“Jimmy and I soon discovered that we shared a vision for making film that would entertain but that would also move people into a new understanding by peeling back a story, so that the audience could see and experience a story with different eyes,” he told WND. “It was also very important to both of us to produce art that respected the audience and the subject – no zombie or screaming teenager movies, for us.
“Since my family was already involved in supporting soldiers and soldier family causes, getting involved with ‘what if’ story of Gold Star families and the very personal fire walk they face was challenging and a privilege for me. From there I was hooked.”
In the late winter of 2011, with the help of the nonprofit organization Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors, or TAPS, Lepoutre met and interviewed Gold Star families at Arlington.
Those interviews with real-life families of fallen soliders – including one with McIlvaine’s own family – are now part of the DVD’s bonus section, called “Behind The Fence.”
This Memorial Day weekend, 50 percent of the net proceeds from DVD sales will go to TAPS, Give2theTroops and the Women In Military Service For America Memorial Foundation.
Those interested in ordering a “donation copy” of “The Fence” DVD package may do so through secure websites at BuyTheFence.com or BuyTheMoviesSupportTheTroops.com or by calling (860)767-9000 to place a phone order. Discounts are offered for bulk orders of two or more copies.
Meanwhile, Lepoutre is working on another project to honor U.S. service members called “Honor Bound.” His friend, Ray Bechard, conceived of the TV reality series that would share the untold stories of U.S. troops’ aid and kindness in the midst of battle.
“These professionals are redefining what it means to be a soldier,” said Bechard, an American journalist who just returned from Afghanistan to record the pilot episode of the show.
“In thousands of quiet ways, our soldiers often go beyond the prevue of their deployments to provide personal help to local populations, often at great risk. In doing so, they create a more fertile ground for freedom and liberty to flourish. ‘Honor Bound’ will feature how the modern American soldier is bringing new meaning to the word, ‘victory.'”