Gretchen Shoemaker of Vienna rises early in the morning and gathers the floral and green arrangements she has put together. While someone is still at home to care for her ailing mother, Shoemaker makes her way to Arlington Memorial Cemetery. There, in Section 60, eternal home of the fallen from Iraq and Afghanistan, Shoemaker spends reflective moments tending to those graves.
"Most families of the fallen don’t live around here," said Shoemaker. "They cannot visit the graves of their children or their spouses. I try to help by leaving at the graves flowers grown in my yard and by cleaning the tombstones."
Shoemaker, mother of SPC Peter A. Shoemaker, stationed in Iraq, does more that that.
As a parent of a child in Iraq’s combat zone who has witnessed friends killed in action, Gretchen, along with husband, Cliff, takes personal and daily action on behalf of U.S. troops and their families. Very rarely is there a time that Shoemaker does not spy grieving families.
"You don’t have to know them to know what they are going through," said Shoemaker. "It means so much to grieving families to have someone, even a stranger, hug them, comfort them. Losing a child is the most horrible thing."
"I am humbled and honored to be in their presence."
Shoemaker said she comes to Arlington on behalf of all the families in the Forum, so they feel they have a part in this, too.
The "Forum" (https://secure.3-509th.com/forum/portal.php) is a Web site created by the Shoemaker family and is restricted to military families. There is, however, a real time news feed scrolling on bottom that any user can access. Since communication from the combat troops is scarce and irregular, families post messages in the Forum when one of them hears from a child or spouse.
"Spouses live on bases, usually, but parents are spread throughout the country. The forum is a means of networking with other parents and supporting them."
THIS YEAR, at the annual Vienna July Fourth celebration, two banners dedicated "to our troops – you are not forgotten" were suspended along the front fencing. One banner would make its way to Kuwait to the 1st TSC unit; the other, to Peter Shoemaker’s 3rd/509th Airborne Infantry Brigade.
Hundreds of citizens, from the community members to Gov. Tim Kaine, Mayor M. Jane Seeman, Board of Supervisors Chairman Gerry Connolly and Town Council members, penned their sentiments on these banners in an expression of support and caring. Shoemaker pointed out the thoughtful designs children included with their signatures — a little flag, a heart, smiley faces.
The story of Peter Shoemaker’s banner is one of fate.
Gretchen Shoemaker read about the banners that the Town of Vienna has been setting out for signatures since 9/11. Using contact information from the article, Shoemaker found Amy Hendrix, Vienna recreation program supervisor.
"When I called Amy, I offered to pay for a second banner for Peter’s unit and put it up ourselves. But Amy was so supportive. ‘No need to, she told me. We have an extra banner you can use if you pay for it to be shipped,’ Amy said.
"We jumped at the chance," said Shoemaker.
One of Peter’s Marshall High School classmates, Michael Chen, is also in the 3rd/509th brigade.
A smiling Cliff Shoemaker, with son Paul, and daughter Heidi, stood attentively by the banner, marker in hand, greeting festival-goers who stopped to sign their names. When Gov. Tim Kaine stepped up, Shoemaker explained to the Governor the significance of the "Killed in Action" bracelet he was wearing. When Shoemaker offered the bracelet — engraved with the names of three of Peter’s fellow soldiers — to the Governor, Kaine earnestly accepted it, said Gretchen Shoemaker.
"We are so grateful to Amy, the Town and everyone who took the time to sign the banners."
FAMILY FRIEND, Pola Jones, refers to Gretchen Shoemaker as a "rock." Her husband, Ben Jones, says the Shoemaker family is what America should be about.
"They are the most unassuming, open-hearted, giving family I know," said Ben Jones.
Clarene Vickery, 88, has been close friends with the Shoemaker family for over 30 years. She was there with Cliff Shoemaker at then-named National Airport waiting for Gretchen Shoemaker when she brought home the twin babies from Korea.
"Only one parent, Gretchen, could accompany the babies on that flight, and Cliff and I were there waiting, so excited," said Vickery, godmother of Peter and Paul. "Peter and Paul were just three months old when Gretchen brought them home; I’ve known Peter his whole life. All the Shoemaker children came to my pre-school [Parkwood]."
Cliff and Gretchen Shoemaker are parents to John, Heidi, and twins Peter and Paul.
Vickery remembered Peter as always an active leader, full of energy, and she laughed while recalling a story about Peter as a four year old.
Gretchen Shoemaker had bought Asian food for the twins’ birthday party, and young Peter told everyone that it was special food, and explained why it was special.
"Little Peter said the food was special because he brought it back with him from Korea," said Vickery. "So, we were eating four-year-old food, according to Peter’s way of thinking."
THE SHOEMAKERS FEEL not enough is written about the good things that happen in iraq. For many Iraqis, American troops are a God-send, Gretchen Shoemaker believes.
"After weeks of eating nothing but MREs, Peter’s squadron came upon a devastatingly poor farmhouse. The family had nothing, no meat, no vegetables, no food of their own. They had nothing but some grain.
"But they were so grateful to American troops, this poor family invited the soldiers in, and the wife used what little flour she had to make a ‘meal’ for the soldiers, just some flatbread. Flatbread.
"There was only enough food for the troops, not enough even for themselves. But the family insisted on thanking our soldiers by giving what little they had.
"Peter was moved and humbled; he said it was the ‘best’ meal because it was given with such a loving and willing heart.
"Somebody fed my son," said Shoemaker, trying to fight back tears, "and for that I’m eternally grateful.
"We don’t hear enough about the Iraqis supporting our troops."
For the Shoemakers, their faith and involvement in troop support is what keeps them going. In their home, they remember not just Peter, but the 3rd/509th fallen.
Dustin Donica, the 3,000th soldier to be killed in Iraq was a squadron friend of Peter Shoemaker. In Donica’s memory, oldest son, John Shoemaker, created a Web site in Donica’s name, www.dustindonica.com.
Peter Shoemaker’s unit is in the company of 1st Lieutenant David Kogan of McLean.
"On behalf of Peter Shoemaker and the 3rd/509th infantry, we extend sincere thanks to Amy Hendrix and the Town of Vienna for providing the banner, to Gov. Kaine for such compassion for signing the banner, to the Connection for making this happen, and to all the wonderful, caring people who signed Peter’s banner and the banner going to Kuwait," said Shoemaker.
"Peter was very touched that so many people, including the Mayor and Governor, and the community, really are supporting the troops."