Emily Hansen found herself and she wasn’t even looking.
She bestows full credit on the Semper Fi Sisters – “That sisterhood” – and the group’s annual Beach Blast, the fifth edition of which began Wednesday with the first arrivals of the women of loved ones in the military deployed overseas.
Before she experienced her first Beach Blast last year, Hansen was lost in a fog of medication and grief, two years lost after the death of her son, deployed with the US Air Force, in Afghanistan Sept. 15, 2010.
Hansen spent those two years following her son’s death on sleeping aids, anti-anxiety medication and anti-depressants.
She had zero desire to travel from her Athens, MI home to Port St. Joe.
She was in no mood for a getaway with other women, aunts, mothers, grandmothers and wives.
Most of whom had not suffered the tragedy that made Hansen a Gold Star mom, “the elephant in the room” who some shun out of fear of reminder of the ultimate sacrifice any of them might have to make.
Further, Hansen didn’t want to hear stories from other mothers about the sons and daughters who had returned.
Hansen’s had not.
But a friend in an online support group for Gold Star moms suggested that, after two years of mourning, maybe Hansen could use the elixir of the sisterhood.
“For me, the Beach Blast was life-changing,” Hansen said. “Everybody was so kind and understanding. That sisterhood is the word; you never felt like a stranger. It made me realize I need to put everything aside and enjoy my life.
“I really came back a changed person. For two years I was in a fog. I lost myself. I literally found myself at the Beach Blast and I wasn’t even there to do that. I was there to escape, to get away. (The Beach Blast) made me realize I could go on.”
Four days of fun, laughter, tears and stories shared. Three nights of acting sometimes, Hansen said, like a 15-year-old girl again – complete with flatulence seat cushion.
Today, most of the medications are put away and while she will never be the same after the death of her son, there will always be a hole, the Beach Blast has helped breathe life into Hansen’s life.
“We had a blast, just a great time,” Hansen said. “The one thing I was concerned about being a Gold Star mom it was hard to be around people talking about their kids. But the ladies let me tell my story and they shared theirs. They changed my attitude; I can listen to other people now when they talk about their kids.
“It felt good to be around Blue Star moms (those whose sons and daughters have returned safely). To me that is honoring my son. He would want me to honor him by listening to their stories and to have fun. That honors him and his brothers and sisters in arms.”
For Paula Lowry of Georgia, the Beach Blast has been something of an arc.
A “newbie” five years ago when she was a co-founder of the Semper Fi Sisters, then a dozen or so Marine moms, formed around the commonality of sons and daughters deployed to a war zone.
Now, a vice-president of the organization, Lowry, as with several of this week’s Beach Blast attendees, could be considered a “veteran” of the home front.
As her son has completed his tour of duty and come home, she has also graduated.
“It really has become a full circle,” Lowry said. “We are all on different levels in this ride we call a roller coaster. We have cooked, ate, cried, laughed. The compassion you feel, the empathy you feel. It is a sisterhood, networking, giving back.
“And now being able to reach down and lift someone up and say, ‘You’ll get through this.’ It has been such a fulfilling experience. And from that experience, it puts things in perspective.”
The perspective comes in significant layers via education, lessons the sisters have not only absorbed but disseminated, the ripples now spreading, literally, across the globe.
“I felt very clueless, newbie is appropriate,” said Melanie Meadows of South Carolina, also on the original Semper Fi Sisters. “It is all totally new. It is not like sending your son off to college.
“When I walked through the door (at the Beach Blast) I knew I was in the right place. Having the support of women … who speak the same language, that was amazing. This year, being an official veteran’s mom … I feel I have a lot to share. I want to get that out. I also feel I have more to learn.”
That these women – 12 that first year, more than 70 last year and numbers unknown at press time this year – would find Port St. Joe was by happenstance, a grain of conversation that became a getaway castle.
But yet they have come to feel embraced by the community, by the kindness and kinship they feel in this bit of paradise.
“I love Port St. Joe,” Lowry said. “It’s such a giving, caring community. From the beginning they have really embraced our mission. We travel at our own expense, but wherever we are we are there to serve our heroes.
“That is our mission. To support those who protect us – our heroes. This is our way of giving back. And the women now go back to their communities and pay it forward. It’s a great feeling to pay it forward.”
The Semper Fi Sisters Beach Blast began Wednesday and continues through Saturday’s Packing Party for Boxes of Love to send to deployed troops. The Packing Party will be held 10 a.m. until 2 p.m. ET at the Centennial Building in Port St. Joe.