Kim Felts and her children will symbolize the families of the 4,475 Americans who made the ultimate sacrifice in Iraq war...
Kim Felts was asleep at her home in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, on the morning of Nov. 15, 2006, when there was a knock at the door at 6:00 AM. The news changed her life forever: Her husband, Army Colonel Thomas H. Felts, Sr., with a Military in Transition Team stationed in Baghdad, had been killed the night before, aged 45. He left behind his wife of 23 years and four children, 3 girls and 1 boy, all still in school. This evening, the Gold Star wife and her two youngest, Thomas, Jr., 16, and Rebekah, 19, will attend President Obama and First Lady Obama's A Nation's Gratitude Dinner. Felts and the kids will be seated with the First Lady at her table in the East Room. Thomas Jr. will be wearing his father's pocket watch with his new tuxedo as he mingles with the Obamas, top military brass and US service members from all 54 states and territories and the District of Columbia. (Above: Felts speaking at the Survivor Outreach Services annual training in Orlando, Fla)
Though sorrow is what led to the White House invitation, Kim Felts is very excited about the evening.
"I think it's a great way for the country to honor the sacrifice and accomplishment of the war in Iraq and to say thank you," Felts said.
"And it's beyond my wildest dreams to sit beside the First Lady."
The family now lives at Fort Bragg in Fayetteville, North Carolina, where Felts has worked for three years for the Special Forces Command as a Family Readiness Program Specialist, devoted to helping other military widows deal with their "new normal," the grief that follows losing a loved one. She'll be telling Mrs. Obama about her work during dinner. Felts was instrumental in developing the outreach program; Mrs. Obama has relied on military family members like Felts for grassroots advice for her Joining Forces campaign.
The First Lady may have some weepy moments. She and the President hail military families as "the force behind the force," and Felts is indeed a force. Her husband, who served for two decades without going into combat before his Iraq deployment, was killed two days before he was scheduled to return home for R & R after eleven months in Operation Iraqi Freedom. Felts tells the story with the kind of calm that puts the sorrow in high relief.
"I have no regrets," Felts says. "I would live this life all over again."
The couple met in high school and dated for seven years before they married when she was 23 and he was 24, and stationed at the 101st Airborne Division at Fort Campbell, Kentucky. While attending University of Richmond, Tom, Sr. drilled with the Army Reserves and then was a member of the National Guard before rising through the Army ranks. Her husband had been trying to go to the Middle East since 9/11, Felts said, and when he finally got his first opportunity to go to Iraq in December of 2005, she encouraged him to go, never fearing for his safety.
Then a senior service fellow in the Advance Operational Art Studies Fellowship of the School of Advanced Military Studies at Fort Leavenworth, the Colonel volunteered for his tour and deployed in January of 2006. On the night he was killed, he was returning from a meeting at 11:30 at night, and went to clear an abandoned truck, a routine stop on the way back to his base. His vehicle was the first in a line of vehicles, and when they stopped at a concrete security barrier that turned out to be booby trapped with a bomb, that was it. The IED was triggered by a laser.
"He died within 30 minutes of being hit, his gunner was killed instantly, the interpreter was severely wounded," Felts said. The driver had cuts and bruises.
About 1.5 million Americans served in Iraq, beginning in March of 2003. 4,475 Americans were killed, and more than 32,000 were wounded.
Felts stressed that her husband "made the call, he chose the route" that was driven on the night he died, and that no one else was responsible for the kind of war casualty that was a daily fact of life for US troops during the combat operations in the Middle East.
"He lived his life doing what he loved, and died that way," Felts said.
He is buried in the small town where he was born and grew up, at Seven Pines Federal Cemetery, in Seven Pines, outside of Richmond.
There is one memory that bolsters Felts. The couple had regular Skype sessions each week, around 4:00 PM US time, but they'd had a brief phone call the morning Colonel Felts died; she was worried because the US news was filled with reports of a kidnapping in Afghanistan. The Colonel assured her he was fine, they joked a little, and he told her he loved her, and said he'd speak to her later during their regular Skype session. The call never came, but even then, Felts wasn't worried, she said.
"Isn't that a great last conversation?" Felts said. "He told me he loved me."
The kids are now doing "really well," Felts said, and she is duly proud of the fact that they remember their father for his deeds, rather than focusing on his death and their own loss. The children, she said, knew their father loved them and was very proud of them. Eldest daughter Sara Beth Bedgood, now 24, went to college and graduate school, and is now a social worker. She got married last June, "oddly enough," Felts said, to a reserve MP. Second daughter LeAnna is 22, and finishing her college degree in wetlands science. Rebekah, who will join her mother beside Mrs. Obama this evening, currently works full time at a Texas Roadhouse restaurant, and is heading to college in the Fall. The Colonel's death has been hardest on Thomas, Jr., Felts said.
"From the time he was born he was a daddy's boy," Felts said. "They were really close. It's hard to grow up in a house full of girls without that male role model."
Nerves and excitement about the White House visit...
The three Felts who will be at the White House this evening have never visited before, and though the President and Mrs. Obama have made stops at Fort Bragg, somehow they missed each opportunity to see the First Couple.
"I barely slept last night," Felts said. "I'm nervous!"
This evening, she'll be wearing the same bright pink gown she wore for her daughter's wedding.
"I have that great wedding memory in the dress already," Felts said.
The dinner, she said, "will be beautiful."
"I love the pageantry of formal military affairs."
Though there have been calls by some veterans' groups for a national ticker tape parade to mark the end of the war, Fells said she feels it's too early, since there are still troops deployed in Afghanistan.
She and the kids have rehearsed what they might say to the President and Mrs. Obama this evening. Thomas Jr. is a sports fanatic, and Felts, laughing, said she suggested he challenge the President to a game of hoops after dessert. Well aware of the First Lady's Kitchen Garden, Felts said she couldn't really have that conversation with Mrs. Obama: "I have a brown thumb."
Colonel Felts will one day hear the story of the dinner: The family is deeply religious, and has a deep faith in God, Felts said.
"I know we'll see him again one day," Felts said. "I know where he is."
*CLICK HERE for more on the dinner details and the guest list
*Photo by Evan Dyson, IMCOM Public Affairs