Features — 12 May 2017

By Greg Buckley @gbuckking

Life and death. Words that dance among themselves and create a memory highway connected to one’s deepest emotions.

The best of memories are always the simplest. It can be a smell or a song that engages the memory, leaving a distinct, warmth pulsating feeling throughout the body.

The sad ones often contain an element of saying goodbye. Leaving one with the feeling of being squeezed in an invisible blanket that provides no warmth during the coldest of nights.

Both create an event that can be relived inside your mind, and only through reliving them can they never be forgotten.

Kevin Graves uses the memory of his son as a banner for all to see. It represents many things depending on the day, but ranges from grief to joy to pride. His son will live on through his memories and be honored through his actions.

“My son is not here to tell his story anymore, so I try to share his life every chance I can,” he said.

On May 3 the campus of Las Positas gave the public a way to remember those from California who paid the ultimate sacrifice during the war on terror.

Todd Steffan, and his staff of student veterans and dependents, who together form the Veterans First Office on campus, coordinated the event, which is in its second year at Las Positas.

President Barry Russell, Todd Steffan and keynote speaker Kevin Graves introduced the event with comments.

“I’ve known Kevin for a long time,” Steffan said. “Last year we did this event, and we didn’t have a keynote speaker. It’s very hard to find someone to speak because of the topic. I had mentioned this event to Kevin, and I asked him, and he said he would be honored.”

Remembering Our Fallen is a traveling photo memorial that contains sons, daughters, husbands, wives, brothers, sisters, uncles, aunts and friends.

They are the men and women who have represented the nation under oath far from home and comforts while most Americans sleep.

Many of the photos have hand written messages from family members wanting to say I miss you one more time, while others express how much life has changed since dying.

Walking into the memorial transports you to another world, one where heroes live; an atmosphere unmatched by any other. The air is slightly colder causing the hair on the back of your neck to rise. There is a pleasing, unique silence that feels loud.

The majority are typical college age, 18 to 22. They could have easily been students at Las Positas or any other college. They look like the guy you walked past on your way to math or that young woman who you always see studying.

Instead they willingly chose the military. It’s brave enough to join, but mostly all joined during wartime. The valor it takes is beyond imaginable.

It’s a path that fast forwards their lives. They have experiences that can be put into movies. Relationships among each other that cannot be forged anywhere else. Bonds that last a lifetime.

Professor Stephen Albair, an art teacher at Las Positas and a veteran said, “An event like this takes the oxygen out of the room. It’s overwhelming to see the numbers. It’s something that everyone should take a look at and think about.”

One of the faces within the memorial is Joey Graves.

Joey, 21, was killed on July 25, 2006, in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom. His convoy came under fire from an ambush from insurgents driving vehicles with heavy mounted weapons, according to his father Kevin.

Before his deployment, both Kevin and Joey got married.

“He married his high school sweetheart about six months before he deployed and he came to me and he said dad I’m changing the insurance policy. I married Cory and I love her and I want to take care of her,” Graves said.

One of the final times family members and friends saw him was when Kevin had Joey be the best man at his wedding.

“Right before he left he came home to be the best man at my wedding, and six weeks later he deployed. I flew to his base the day before his deployment so I got to spend his last day in the states with him and that was the last time I saw him.”

A husband, son and friend died that day in Iraq, piercing the hearts of his family.

“I’m fairly convinced that I will grieve for the rest of my life, but I’m also thoroughly convinced that I will dedicate the rest of my life to making sure that as a country we don’t forget that there are sacrifices made, and it oppresses a lot of lives, and it’s painful,” Graves said.

Keeping true to his words Graves has now dedicated himself to helping. It comes in an array of different forms. As a Gold Star parent he reaches out to other Gold Star families. He understands the pain and through his personal experience knows that opening up to just anyone is difficult.

Graves started a foundation, Some Gave All; The Joey Graves Foundation, an organization aimed at honoring the fallen and reaching out to those who need help with their loss.

“If you don’t grieve, it can become toxic,” he said. “I know of Gold Star parents who have committed suicide over the loss of their son, and our organization wants to prevent that. You only really trust someone that’s been there. Nobody can understand what you’re going through and even then it’s not the same.”

In 2010 with the economy tanking, Graves lost his job in construction. Unemployed, he had to look for a different direction in life. He was hired with the Department of Veteran Affairs.

He works in outreach programs and has ten counties he is responsible for. He works with governmental and non-governmental agencies, both profit and nonprofit, to help provide benefits to veterans who have earned them. “It’s been kind of a dream job and gives me comfort,” he said.

In addition, he is also an active member of the California State Military Reserve, volunteer branch of the National Guard.  These members fill jobs that cannot be occupied by the National Guard due to funding or lack of personal.

At 53 years old, he went through an abbreviated basic training and went on to serve as a Chaplain’s Assistant to his unit. He shows up to his weekend drills and wears the same uniform as the National Guard. The only key difference is he doesn’t get paid.

“I can do everything but deploy and I’ve asked,” Graves said.

Through his actions, Graves honors his son every day and honors the fallen with an overwhelming drive.

Special events like this are a way that Kevin graves, Steffen and the student veterans give civilians a chance to honor and pay respect to the men and women who have paid the ultimate price.

The memorial will be open May 3 to May 15 in Building 1700, room 1726, Monday through Friday 10a.m. to 6p.m. and Saturdays 10a.m. to 3p.m.

“We get caught up with thinking that Memorial Day is just a three-day weekend. An event like this reminds us that it is so much more than that,” Steffan said.

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