Gold Star parents Barbara and Charles Bilbrey have become regulars at Post 177's Rolling Thunder events. (Photo by Cheryl Diaz Meyer)

'It's like seeing old friends'

For most, Memorial Day serves as the official summer kickoff. Friends and family gather for cookouts, swimming parties and other leisure activities.

For Barbara Bilbrey, a Gold Star mom who lost a son who served in Iraq, it was one of the hardest weekends of the year. But for the past five Memorial Day weekends, Bilbrey has been surrounded by friends and supporters who assure her that her son’s sacrifice is not forgotten.

Since 2014, and at the urging of fellow Gold Star mother Linda Lamie, Bilbrey has been spending Memorial Day weekend among the Legion family at American Legion Post 177 in Fairfax, Va. The post hosts various Rolling Thunder events, including a Friday night ceremony in which Bilbrey and her husband Charles Sr. were recognized. Gold Star parents have been a fixture at Post 177 during the Memorial Day weekend for years.

Barbara’s son, Charles Jr., was killed in 2007 at age 21 in Saqlawiyah, Iraq, when an improvised explosive device detonated near his vehicle. He was deployed with the Army’s 5th Squadron, 7th Cavalry Regiment of the 3rd Infantry Division.

Bilbrey said during a conversation with Lamie how difficult Memorial Day was for her. Lamie suggested going to Post 177, where Lamie and her family had first come on Memorial Day in 2007. Bilbrey gave it a try and found it to a way to cope with her loss.

“People that don’t understand the military, to them it’s getting their pool opened or going camping. It’s a party,” Bilbrey said. “To those of us who have lost (a military member), it’s not a party.

“We’ve found nothing but support from the Legion, the Legion Riders. They may not know us. They may not know my son. But they respect the sacrifice. And every time we’re able to tell Charlie’s story to somebody, that keeps him alive.”

The common bond of serving in the military carries over to the families, Bilbrey said.

“To be able to be with other people that know loss, have seen loss, respect service – not just my son’s – and they themselves have served, it’s just been an incredible experience,” Bilbrey said. “Post 177 could not have been nicer. I come back every year and it’s like seeing old friends.”

Bilbrey said her family will continue to come to the post on Memorial Day weekend “as long as Post 177 will have us. It really makes a very, very big difference in how I get through the weekend.”

While Rolling Thunder at Post 177 has made a huge impact on Bilbrey, being around Gold Star moms has been equally impactful to Legion Rider Sharon Sculthorpe. For six of the past eight years, Sculthorpe has served as an escort for a Gold Star mom during Rolling Thunder, making sure each one makes it to where they need to be on Sunday during the demonstration ride through Washington, D.C.

“It’s a great honor,” said Sculthorpe, a member of Legion Post 325 in Danville, Va., who has served on the Legacy Run’s advance team the past five years. “To have a Gold Star mom, a Gold Star wife, to be entrusted to take them on that ride … I think the biggest thing for me is that so often they feel forgotten. When their son or daughter dies, or their husband or wife, the whole country rallies around them. But as time passes, people fade away and then – for lack of a better way of putting it – the silence becomes deafening because you feel all alone.

“So many of them have told me that they feel so alone, and that this brings back their faith that America loves them and their children and sacrifice, and that we won’t forget them. You’ve given them back a little bit of what they’ve lost. They feel like that the sacrifice they gave was worth it. That it wasn’t in vain.”

The relationships Sculthorpe has made have carried on long past the motorcycle ride is over. When the Legacy Run went to Houston in 2013, Sculthorpe met up with one of the moms for dinner. On the way back home, she stopped in Louisiana and stayed the night with another Gold Star mother and her family. She also always brings the Gold Star mom she escorts a present “because I want them to remember more than just being here. After I’m done, I take all my pictures and I have a picture book made and mail it to them so they can remember being here and what we did. I want it to be a positive experience.

“I keep in touch with them over the phone and on Facebook. This isn’t just a chance meeting. It’s a lifetime thing.”