The parent had always promised to "come home." The promise couldn't be kept.
Stepping in to help remember that parent's legacy and support the children of fallen military and first responders is the mission of Angels of America's Fallen.
"We're empowering the children to invest in themselves," said retired Lt. Col. Joe Lewis, AOAF founder.
Lewis, a retired fighter pilot who served 25 years in the Army, Marine Corps and Air Force, said he has a passion: "ensuring that these amazing children can write their own stories of success and discover their passion in life."
A sold-out Broadmoor Angel Gala audience of 360 was there Feb. 17 to support the 330 AOAF children as they heard about youngsters in sports, dancing, martial arts, surfing and music programs. During the nonprofit's six-year history, recipients have earned athletic scholarships and trophies, performed in concerts and reached major life milestones.
"I wouldn't have been able to afford these special extras for my kids after their father died," said one AOAF mother. "I cried when I would have to say, 'I'm sorry, but no.'"
"There's a waiting list of several hundred other youngsters out there with their own wish lists," Lewis said. The organization helps its children until they reach age 18. The gala raised about $180,000.
Air Force Master Sgt. Israel Del Toro, keynote speaker, said that as a father who almost didn't come home to his son, he is especially close to the work of AOAF (aoafallen.org). Del Toro was burned over 80 percent of his body when his Humvee went over an IED while crossing a creek in Afghanistan on Dec. 4, 2005. He said he felt intense pain in his side and could only think, "Holy crap, I just got hit." Del Toro said he was convinced he had broken his promises to his family to return.
A coma "when you don't see yourself at your worst, but your family does," learning to walk again, going from "a 200-pound musclehead to 115 pounds," 150 surgeries, rehab and "never accepting the odds" followed. "Don't ask why. There's always a reason," he said. "I'm just a guy who had a bad day at work." He wanted to go "back to my military family," he told a cheering gala crowd. But he wanted to go back on his own terms. "I became a patient advocate and in 2010 the first 100 percent disabled airman to re-enlist. He's jumping out of planes, 130 times, as part of the Air Force Academy's Wings of Blue. And the Pat Tillman Award winner at the 2017 ESPYs is a power lifter and shot putter participating in the Warrior Games and Invictus Games.
Photo gallery: gazette.com/life/around-town