May 3, 2007. On that day, Anne Adkins’ life changed forever. Her son, Matthew Adkins, while on active duty in Iraq, was killed. In an instant, she went from a mother to a Gold Star Mother.
“My son’s a hero,” Adkins says. “He died fighting for this country as so many others have done, and they’re all heroes.”
Gold Star parents, siblings and families receive the designation when their child or sibling is killed during military service.
After Matthew’s death, Adkins felt increasingly unsettled and later found herself detached from her work as vice president of marketing for Raycom Media. By 2014, while in a corporate meeting, she made a decision. “I knew this was not what I was supposed to be doing; I was supposed to be helping veterans … full time.”
She retired from her position in 2015 to begin volunteering with veterans groups.
Four years later, Adkins and her family moved to Hendersonville, where she soon joined the board of the local nonprofit Blue Ridge Honor Flight. Founded by Jeff Miller in 2006, the organization leads free flights for U.S. veterans to Washington, D.C., to visit national war memorials.
This year, the nonprofit launched its latest initiative, which invites Gold Star Families to join the annual flights. Along with seeing the memorials, Gold Star Families will be provided with a separate, additional trip to visit their loved ones in Arlington National Cemetery.
“Losing parents, siblings, a child — the pain is just incredible,” Adkins says. “And it lasts, and it lasts. We need to take care of Gold Star Families. We need to support them, to help them heal.”
Xpress sat down with Adkins to discuss her son, Blue Ridge Honor Flight and what it means for Gold Star Families to be included in the yearly trips to the nation’s capital.
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed.
Let’s take a moment and celebrate your son’s life.
Matthew was lovely. When he was little, the first toys he wanted were toy soldiers and then tanks. As he started getting a little bit older, his favorite channel was the History channel. I remember he came up to me one day and he said, “You know, World War II was the best war.” And I said, “Why is that?” And he said, “Because we were attacked, and we got even, and we will never be attacked again.”
Therefore, 9/11 was the reason he enlisted. We talked him out of it for a while. But in 2002, he came home one day and said, “No, I’ve got to go. This is what I’m supposed to be doing. Nobody should ever do this to our country again. I’m destined to be with those who believe as I do.” And he enlisted.
He was very loved. And, oh gosh, he loved his sister. Here’s a story. He didn’t know I was pregnant. I was sitting there, and he was 5. And I said, “Well, they’re having a baby sale at Target.” And he says, “A baby sale at Target? Oh, let’s go and buy a baby! Please, please, please! I want a little sister!” And he got one.
She was … oh my God — she went to pieces when he was killed. She started taking drugs to alleviate her pain. Up to that point, and I think every Gold Star Mother has felt this, I thought about killing myself. But you can’t do that to your daughter or your husband. So, we got her a lot of help. She’s been clean for four years, and she now helps those who have addiction and grief problems.
What called you to serve on the board of Blue Ridge Honor Flight in particular?
Jeff Miller and I met at a veterans event. We were talking, and he found out that my husband, Vernon, and I were Gold Star Parents. He invited my husband and I to go on the next flight that he had, and we did.
And when you see what they do for veterans — it’s incredible! These veterans see every monument in Washington. And the Vietnam veterans, which are the main flight attendees now, when they see the Veterans Memorial Wall, it really moves them.
And when the Blue Ridge Honor Flight returns [to the Asheville Regional Airport] — you should go to the airport to see it, it is unbelievable. There’s hundreds of people there, with flags and children. They’re welcoming them back. The veterans are so moved because they didn’t receive that the first time. The trip itself is so emotional and healing for them. But the return is exceptional. I’ve seen them cry tears of joy at the people saying, “We love you. Thank you. Thank you for serving.”
You know, gosh, they can express their emotions finally.
What are your feelings about Gold Star Families being able to visit Arlington National Cemetery as members of the Blue Ridge Honor Flight?
It means so much to be able to go visit and see your loved one. Arlington is a sacred place. For them to go and reunite with their loved one is God-given.
What was it like to visit Matthew there?
At first, of course, it’s very sad. But now it’s so wonderful to be able to see him and talk to him. We bring gifts. Both children were born in Louisiana. So, every Mardi Gras — that was their favorite holiday — we go and bring hundreds of beads. And there are other parents and siblings there that you get to talk to, and they’ll help us put beads on every single grave for as long as you can see. It’s a really holy place.
I take Matthew’s favorite book — anything by [Aleksandr] Solzhenitsyn — and I will sit down and read to him. We will talk.
Matthew was killed going out to pick up the remains of another soldier. They are now buried side by side. We have become very good friends with his parents. We are also good friends with some of his military friends who are still living, and they call [me and my husband] “Mama” and “Daddy.” It’s wonderful to have a relationship with those young men and their families.
Even though my son was killed fighting for his country, I’m so proud of him. There can be no land of the free without the home of the brave. And I honor all those who serve and continue to serve.
If you are a veteran or member of a Gold Star Family and would like to join Blue Ridge Honor Flight for a trip to Washington D.C., please visit blueridgehonorflight.com for more information.