By Laura Adelmann
Ken and Debbie Rice of Iowa recently drove 400 miles to attend the funeral of an American soldier they never met.
The retired couple gave the Gold Star family members – family members who have lost loved ones in war – memorial pins they had made bearing the fallen soldier’s image.
They offered compassionate hugs and expressed sincere gratitude, leaving them with vows to remember their loved one and return whenever they are needed. It’s a promise they have kept to over 100 other military families in recent years.
“They haven’t lost a child to war, but yet they seem like the two people who can feel your pain,” said Gay Eisenhauer of Illinois, whose son Wyatt was killed by an improvised bomb in Iraq on May 19, 2005, at age 26.
Eisenhauer said she and her family met the Christian couple during a fundraiser for fallen soldiers three years after Wyatt’s death.
“They have literally become our family since then,” Eisenhauer said. “They just crawled into our hearts, and we’ve just kept them there. They do so much for Gold Star families and they expect nothing in return.”
Ken and Debbie Rice’s ministry to Gold Star families began in 2003 when they volunteered with organizations mailing supplies to troops overseas.
The focus of their ministry expanded after Debbie Rice’s mother died in 2006, when she felt compelled to use a small inheritance to buy a button maker.
“I had no idea why, but I felt I was to make a button for my mom,” the retired retail store manager said.
With help from a friend in the printing business, Debbie Rice, 60, crafted a pin bearing her mother’s image to honor her memory.
Wearing the small tribute touched others, generated conversation and eventually led her to make buttons to honor fallen soldiers.
The buttons are customized for each soldier, and in addition to the soldier’s name and photo, may include birth and death dates and military branch.
Their array of items honoring soldiers who lost their lives in service to their country has since grown to include bracelets, dog tags and poker chips. The items are created by the couple at their own expense and presented to families or donated for memorial fundraisers Gold Star families organize.
“These trinkets we give to families to help put their soldier’s face out there so they are not forgotten,” Ken Rice said. “It memorializes them in some way.”
The couple also attends as many military funerals, memorials, parades and fundraisers as possible, traveling throughout Iowa, Wisconsin, Missouri and Illinois to serve, befriend and comfort Gold Star families.
They are regulars at a Halloween parade in Illinois, helping to design the float and walk with family members; they carry cold water for Gold Star families participating in commemorative motorcycle rides and are part of the Patriot Guard, a group of men and women organized to protect Gold Star families from protesters and allow them privacy from the media.
Gold Star father Don Pannier said the Rices were among the Patriot Guard members standing in solemn formation holding flags flapping in the chilling wind in 2008 as family and friends gathered to witness his son Phillip Pannier’s arrival home in a flag-draped casket.
“They were standing there holding flags when the plane come in and as they brought the coffin out to the hearse,” Pannier said. “The sound of them flags is like music to your ears. If you’ve got any kind of military in your heart, it can’t help but bring tears to your eyes.”
Respect, honor and gratitude is the kind of homecoming every soldier deserves, said Ken Rice, 63, whose experience after his own military service contributes to the couple’s solid commitment to Gold Star families.
““Anything we can do to honor our fallen soldiers and support their families, we do,” said Ken Rice, a Vietnam veteran. “We just want to make sure that our soldiers coming home are treated right. What happened in the ’60s and ’70s wasn’t right. We want to make sure these families [of the soldiers] know they were appreciated.”
His sentiment is echoed by Gay Eisenhauer, a key advocate for provisions in the 2007 National Defense Appropriations Act requiring the remains of all soldiers killed in action to be draped with a flag, accompanied by an honor guard and transported home by military or military-contracted aircraft.
In contrast, Wyatt Eisenhauer arrived home on a cargo plane. Gay and Fred Eisenhauer watched in horror as their son’s body was unloaded by a forklift in a casket with no flag, “teetering like a piece of luggage.”
“If Wyatt’s death [has] done nothing more, it gave us a voice and it changed the way the military people are brought home,” she said.
Debbie Rice said the Gold Star families’ strongest desire is that their loved one be remembered; not only for their service, but for who they were.
One father had them engrave the words “Man never dies unless he is forgotten” on the back of his son’s dog tags.
“That’s how he felt about his son Kevin,” Debbie Rice said. “That’s just the way they all feel. They figure at one point, their loved one may be just another number. Well, as long as we’re around, they won’t ever be another number.”
A talented woodworker, Ken Rice designed and built the “Iowa’s Fallen Heroes Memorial Wall,” a traveling war memorial honoring all of that state’s military members who have perished in Iraq and Afghanistan since 9/11.
He created the traveling memorial after seeing a similar one for Illinois. He has met with all the Gold Star families and knows the stories of each of the soldiers on both walls.
“When I look at a picture, sometimes I can see right into their soul,” Ken Rice said.
He tells visitors about how Wyatt Eisenhauer tenderly cared for his sister to give his exhausted parents a break after taking her through hours of intense chemotherapy therapy and shares words from one soldier’s last letter home: “I’m living my dream.”
He remembers Phillip Pannier, a farm boy who raised and showed sheep, as “quite a hero.”
After being hit by an improvised bomb, Pannier told medics “to work on the ones they could save.”
Ken Rice said he watches the visitors who come to the wall and is haunted by some, including a young autistic girl staring at her dad’s photo.
“I’ll never forget the look on her face,” Ken Rice said. “She was totally lost. It haunted me.”
His heart surged when saw her again months later at another Gold Star event, running with other kids.
The last time he saw her was at another soldier’s funeral, clinging to her father’s dog tags.
“To me, it was almost too hard to take,” Ken said. “I cried when I saw that.”
The couple’s devotion to families has helped nurture traditions. They are part of the Mississippi Valley Patriots, which every year sponsors a “Tribute to the Fallen” event and dinner for Gold Star families.
The three-day event, held at Davenport Memorial Park, includes a “Healing Field” featuring a display of flags that had draped coffins set in rows with memorial plaques attached listing names of soldiers who gave all for their country.
Events include an opening and closing ceremony and a formal dinner served by Mississippi Valley Patriots, including the Rices.
Gold Star families hold fundraising events throughout the year, and the Rices make an effort to be at each of them, volunteering and donating their memorial wares to help raise money for foundations and other causes in the fallen soldier’s name.
“As a Gold Star parent, you struggle for activities, to do things that keep the memory of your child alive,” Gay Eisenhauer said.
Debbie Rice said despite recent health problems, they remain devoted to their Gold Star family ministry.
“We’ll keep doing this until we can’t,” she said. “Freedom is not free; They gave all their tomorrows for our todays and that’s the main thing. Without them, where would we be today?”
Ken and Debbie Rice can be reached at [email protected]