Local News

Channelizing loss into solidarity

SEBRING -A faded yellow-and-black ribbon still hangs on a tree outside Sue Sawyer's Sebring home, a constant reminder of her son, Marcus Mathes, who died in Iraq five years ago.

When the 26-year-old Army sergeant, on his second overseas deployment, was hit by a rocket propelled grenade April 28, 2008, it left Sawyer with so many questions.

"They were waiting for a sand storm to abate, and a truck went by. Marcus and his friend, Mark Stone, took a direct hit from an RPG," Sawyer said of the deaths that left her with nothing to mourn but her son's uniform in a coffin.

A senior adult program specialist at South Florida State College, Sawyer has found purpose, hope and healing as a facilitator for the local chapter of the non-profit organization, TAPS, the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors.

"When you have a loss, they talk about a 'new normal,' that's hard to explain," said Sawyer of the rollercoaster of emotions she experienced after her middle son's death. "I have gotten stronger. I've come out of that shell more through TAPS, reaching out to others."

As part of the TAPS.org Survivor Care Team, Sawyer was trained to provide peer mentoring and assistance to anyone who has lost a loved one in the Armed Forces, no matter what the circumstances of their death.

"There is just an unspoken bond," Sawyer explained of the connection survivors have found in the meetings held the third Saturday of every month in Bartow.

Their next meeting is in January. Anyone who wants information can contact Sawyer at sue.sawyer@taps.org.

A national toll-free help line, 800-959-TAPS (8277), provides round-the-clock support and information to parents, siblings, spouses, children, military buddies, fiancées, and significant others who are dealing with the grief and trauma of loss.

From children's mentors who follow the grieving process with young people for one year and online support groups to bereavement camping retreats, TAPS strives to help people survive the pain, cherish the memories and gain strength from the support of others.

"Sue Sawyer is a spokeswoman for those that are survivors," said mental health counselor Charleen "Charlie" Stroup, a specialist in grief therapy. "Sue is so gentle, so sweet, and so genuine. What a remarkable woman."

A mother of three, Kyle, Marcus and Zach, Sawyer became involved with TAPS after her own mother, Dorothy Simpson, passed away from leukemia in February 2011.

"The last seven years of mom's life I was her caregiver," recalled Sawyer. "Mom had just died, and Zach had enlisted in the Army."

This past weekend, Sawyer and her son, Zach, who is on leave from Ft. Lewis, laid a wreath on Mathes' grave in Bushnell, as part of "Wreaths across America," a ceremony in remembrance of military personnel, held at national cemeteries in 50 states and 24 foreign countries.

"Every military holiday is a reminder. It becomes personal," said Sawyer. She added: "The first year after Marcus died he was honored at Sun 'n Lake Elementary School at a Veterans Day program."

Every year teachers Linda Laye and Barbara Baker still tell their Sun 'n Lake classes about the ultimate sacrifice for freedom made by their former student.

A devoted Christian, Mathes' funeral services were held in Dade City where he lived with his wife, Julia, followed by a celebration of life memorial held at First Baptist of Lake Josephine in Sebring.

For two years after her son's death, Sawyer organized the "Run for the Fallen 5K" at Highlands Hammock State Park.

"We still have a Run and Remember team," Sawyer said of the TAPS members that race in events with pictures of fallen soldiers on their runner's bibs.

In 2009, former Florida Congresswoman Ginny Brown-Waite spearheaded an effort to have the Dade City post office renamed in Mathes' honor. His picture now hangs in the facility's lobby.

Mathes' name was also etched into the Fallen Heroes Memorial on the Circle in downtown Sebring.

"Someone told me, 'Marcus was a brave soldier, now it is your turn to be brave,'" said Sawyer. "Marcus believed in what he was doing. I can't let that be in vain, so I carry on."