Maj. Shawn Matthew Campbell was my husband, and he was Tristan, Kenna, Kate and Donovan’s dad. He was kind, considerate, calm, soft-spoken, dedicated, faithful.
Shawn had a fun-loving, easygoing nature, but make no mistake, he was a U.S. Marine; he had the heart of a warrior. Shawn poured that heart into his family, his work, his community – in fact those were all one in the same for him. Whether it was setting up chairs or playing his guitar at church, stopping to help a guy push his broken-down truck off the road, coaching his son’s soccer team, or taking time to offer wise advice to young Marines, he just cared for people. He drew them together and created community wherever he went.
Shawn flew CH-53 helicopters for the Marine Corps and would proudly tell you that they don’t fly, they beat the air into submission. It’s a beast, that helicopter. One look at it and you know it takes a skilled and very brave pilot. Shawn was both.
I first met Shawn when we were students at Texas A&M University. We were working in a coffee shop together. He was studying for a degree in Microbiology and I was a Parks and Recreation major. Needless to say my homework was a lot more fun.
After working together for about eight months he asked me to go mountain biking with him one day. To make a short story shorter, one month later we were engaged. Another month after that Shawn left for 10 weeks of Officer Candidate School in Quantico, Va. And just one week after his graduation, we were married. He was so fresh out of training he was still doing push-ups in his sleep. We finished school together that year and he was commissioned as a Lieutenant in the Marine Corps in August 2001.
Just a few weeks later, as we were preparing to move to Quantico, 9-11 struck. We knew that day that his career was probably going to look a lot different than we expected, but we had no regrets. We knew we were on the path God had laid out for us. We chose faith over fear and continued to dream and plan and set off on what would be a great 15-year adventure.
Those years brought four incredible people into our lives. Tristan is 13 and inherited his dad’s smile, his steadfast perseverance and his quiet wit. Kenna, my 10-year-old daughter, has his stubborn determination and artistic ability. Eight-year-old Kate has his big laugh and his compassion. And then there’s Donovan … 4 years old now and Shawn’s spitting image head to toe. If you ask that one why he’s so cute he’ll tell you in his precious tiny voice, “Because I look just like my Daddy!”
He was just 2 ½ years old when his daddy kissed him goodbye for the last time at the back door of our home in Hawaii.
As a pilot, Shawn’s job was dangerous every day, everywhere. We knew that but it’s easy to forget. Even as a military family you can grow complacent and secure in the word home. He’s home, he’s safe. We were living our dream, stationed in paradise, our house just a block from the beach. With more than 15 years in, retirement actually felt within arms’ reach. So we were making plans, dreaming of the next chapter in our life – one where we wouldn’t have to say goodbye for weeks and months at a time.
We had homeschooled our children from the time our oldest began kindergarten. It allowed us to give our kids something consistent and dependable in the midst of our nomadic military life. When we moved, our school moved with us. When Dad had a day off, we all took a day off. We were able to live all of life together.
On Jan. 15, 2016, word of a helicopter collision in Hawaii had hit the morning news on the mainland even as our little island was still dark and silent. My phone rang at 4 a.m. and I heard my father’s voice on the other end of the line, thousands of miles away. I was so confused. It took me a moment to realize he was asking me if Shawn was home. I remember reaching over to find his pillow empty.
There was only one squadron of 53s on the island. There had been only one flight scheduled the night before. The last thing I had heard as I went to sleep the night before were two 53s passing over the bay. A routine night-time training mission. Pegasus 31 and 32 were carrying 12 Marines from HMH 463. I knew it was Shawn. I knew it was bad.
But when the crash happens close to home, and there are a lot of Marines missing, word simply travels to all the wrong places first.
Hours actually passed between my dad’s call and that moment. The moment every military wife fears. I was sitting outside on the sidewalk, frantically trying to reach someone on the phone who could tell me what was happening, trying not to frighten my children, when I looked up and saw three officers coming around the low stone wall that surrounded our yard. In slow motion I watched my daughter, Katie, run to open the gate expectantly. I know there was a moment when she thought her daddy was one of those men in dress uniform.
They led us into the house and I grabbed the arm of the only one that I knew, Shawn’s good friend from the squadron, and I begged him to please just tell me. But with a shake of his head he said, “We don’t know, we don’t know.” He didn’t quite meet my eyes, because I think we did know, but in that moment, I took a breath and turned to look at kids. They were all standing there looking on with the big beautiful eyes they got from their dad. I realized I didn’t have to say the words to them yet. Maybe, just maybe it wouldn’t be true. I let the other officer read the official statement. Missing, searching, ocean.
All I could do was hold my kids and pray for a rescue.
A five-day search ensued and we waited and hoped for good news but I know now Shawn’s rescue had already happened. It came at the moment of impact, near midnight, on Jan. 14, 2016.
He felt no pain. He was flying over an earthly paradise one moment, and Home with his Father in true Paradise the next. He was never lost. I believe God always knew where he was. And because of Shawn’s faith in Jesus Christ, death was not something he had to fear. He was courageous to the end.
There is an indescribable peace in that knowledge. We do not mourn without hope. But there I was suddenly faced with figuring out what’s next. Where would we go? How would we do this? We were celebrating children’s birthdays and planning a memorial and packing up our home all at the same time. They say you shouldn’t make too many major life decisions and changes immediately after a tragedy but military families just don’t always have that choice. We had been thrown into chaos overnight, not a single part of our lives untouched by loss.
Every move I ever made in my adult life was because the Marine Corps told me to. Shawn got orders for when, where and how long, and I gladly followed him for fifteen years. But in the blink of an eye, I was cut loose. I have experienced incredible support from my Marine Corps family. I know we will always be a part of them, but it’s just not the same when that gold star has been stamped on your file.
The only what-if Shawn and I had ever discussed was where the kids and I would go if something happened to him. It was a very short conversation because for one, we weren’t really expecting anything to happen, and two there was just no question –we’d stay with my parents and figure it out. I remembered the look on his face, the peace that gave him, knowing we’d be safe. So, excruciating as it was, I knew it was the right next step and just one month after losing Shawn, the kids and I moved to Kansas City to stay with my parents as we rode out the storm. Back in Hawaii, the salvage operation would be ongoing in the waters off the North Shore for months. The remains of our Marines still missing or being recovered.
I didn’t want to leave but every day that we stayed was one more day of total uncertainty, and my family needed something solid. So we landed here in the middle of a Midwestern winter in our flip-flops deep in the fog of grief. I wasn’t eating or sleeping. I was moving in slow motion, unable to do more than one moment at a time. I trusted that we were going to be OK because I was watching God provide for us at every turn but I just couldn’t see past the next hour. I was still facing the unimaginable task of burying my husband.
I’ll never forget the day I sat on my parents’ living room floor surrounded by kids and library books. It was a Monday in early March; they hadn’t done any schooling in over three months because we’d been on holiday vacation just before the crash. All of our belongings, including our school supplies, were in storage, and I was panicking. We’d gone to the library - an attempt that day at beginning something school-like. But I just remember sitting there crying in my head, “God please help me. I don’t know how to do this.”
Today I am still learning to be a civilian. I don’t live near a base. We don’t hear the familiar drone of helicopters flying overhead all day. All of my new friends’ husbands are home for dinner and home on weekends. Being a widow is isolating and lonely for anyone, but as a military widow, I have this whole past life that only another military spouse can understand.
The last ball we attended was held on board the USS Missouri in Pearl Harbor. Our dinner tables were set up on the dock just yards from the USS Arizona memorial. It was beautiful. We had just joined the squadron so it was my first chance to meet the Marines Shawn worked with and their spouses. During the ceremony on the ship I met and sat next to Kirsten Torbert. We talked about her four-month-old baby boy. Her husband, Capt. Steven Torbert, was Shawn’s co-pilot the night of the crash. So the next time I saw Kirsten was at a Coast Guard briefing in the base chapel. Our husbands were missing along with 10 other Marines; we were both in shock. We’ve kept in touch and even flew back to Hawaii together for the one-year anniversary. It was healing to be able to gather at the shore with the other women and share our stories. We didn’t all know each other at the time of the mishap but as the fog cleared and we began piecing things together we were already beginning to scatter away from Hawaii but managed to connect online or by phone. So that day, Jan. 14, 2017, a year later, we sat in a huddle by the water and just watched the ocean. We talked about what the year had been like, how we felt about the future. We talked about things no one else would understand –words I’m not sure we would even dare say to anyone else. We don’t all keep in touch but I think quietly we follow one another and want to see each other doing well, healing. I know I’ll always feel a need to look out for them and definitely will continue praying for them – maybe that’s just the mom in me.
Sealy Marines are celebrating the U.S. Marine Corps birthday at 6 p.m. Friday, Nov. 10, at Shepherd’s Way Church, 1225 Eagle Lake Road, Sealy. The event includes the traditional cake-cutting ceremony and honors the group’s oldest and youngest Marines.