A St. Bede graduate and military wife needs help to show compassion not only for families of fallen soldiers and but also for veterans who lost buddies while in the military.
One of the nation’s largest memorials to fallen soldiers at war or in peacetime is coming to St. Bede Academy on June 13.
But Theresa (Irizarry) Johnson, who curates the exhibit, needs some unusual donations from veterans here and throughout the United States. She wants to collect more than 8,000 combat boots and other military-issue boots for a ceremony and run in late spring west of Peru.
Johnson started the Boot Memorial while her husband was stationed on military bases. She decided to collect military boots, and place into each a photograph, autobiographical information and flag for military personnel who died in service to the country since the early 1990s and Middle East conflicts.
She launched the memorial on her own while working in 2012 for Fisher House, a haven for the injured and soldiers with post-traumatic stress and for their families.
“I wanted to also raise awareness for Fisher House and what they did. They help military families who are going through a medical crisis,” she said, referring to how she launched the boot memorial and a Fisher House fundraiser simultaneously.
The Fisher House Foundation has 85 multi-family temporary homes, two in Alaska, two in Hawaii and two in Germany. The foundation has one in Dover, Del., set up and restricted solely as a private transitional location for the families of the fallen.
Johnson witnessed the suffering of the thousands of soldiers who lost friends in the military or saw their buddies killed and never had a chance to deal with it or say good-bye.
“They didn’t get a chance to process the loss because you need to stay mission-focused — if you don’t, you might be next,” she said.
Since there were various Fisher House locations in the United States, Johnson moved her event, the Hero and Remembrance Run, Walk or Roll, and boot memorial as her husband, Leon, was moved to different bases.
But she began formulating the event several years before that. In 2005 and 2006, when she and her husband were there, her husband and an entire division from Fort Campbell, Ky., deployed to Iraq, and 105 of the soldiers were killed. Additional deaths hit close to home, such as her son’s best friend dying in 2007, and her son’s unit losing two pilots.
Her husband, Leon, also spent his career with wounded soldiers and their comrades as a combat medic. He recently retired, as a Command Sergeant Major, after 28 years of service, and he runs a middle school Junior ROTC program.
She and her husband got to know a lot of soldiers who carried on with their lives and their service without grieving. She spent time with a lot soldiers having mental difficulties.
“There was a lot of survivor guilt,” Johnson said.
She met some who had been the only survivors of an improvised explosive device blast, and they questioned why their “battle buddies” were the ones killed, not them.
Other soldiers would finish one mission and immediately transition to the next mission without having time to deal with the emotions they had on the battlefield or when there had been an accident on a base.
Setting out the boots with the fallen soldiers’ photos, information and flag was beneficial to soldiers who came to the events at the military bases.
“It gave them an opportunity to have another moment with their battle buddy,” she said.
Johnson and St. Bede are preparing for the first Boot Memorial Hero and Remembrance Run at a civilian site.
“This is my first non-military location, so we’re starting from scratch,” she said.
Johnson had a lot of boots before beginning to network online and through friends and colleagues to collect boots. She’s reaching out to friends and military families nationwide, and she is planning to pick up military boots at camps including Fort Campbell and Fort Hood as she zigzags her way from her home in Texas to St. Bede.
“We’re creating a display to stay in the Illinois Valley area,” Johnson said.
But she needs more military boots — and she doesn’t think people need to go out and buy new ones. She said from experience a lot of veterans still have at least one pair of boots. In Hawaii, a soldier heard about the event and showed up with 10 pairs of worn boots in the back of his pickup.
On Facebook, she blasted out the message nationwide: “Let’s get these boots collected for the June 13, 2020 Boot Memorial that will be held at St. Bede Academy! … I have a few people so far willing to be a drop-off site for boots. If you are willing and able to collect boots in your location please post your area on here so people know. I do have a gentleman willing to travel to pick up large quantities so just let me know.”
“If you are collecting them please message me as you get PAIRS so I can start ticking them off, if you have already put some on the mail, please message me with how many too. Our goal is to make sure everyone we honor including our MWD have a Boot before June.”
All Boot donations can be dropped off at St. Bede or mailed to: St. Bede Academy; Attn: Tom McGunnigal; 24 US-6; Peru, IL 61354.
Anyone donating military boots is asked to place an empty water bottle with the cap on inside the boot and lace it up. “This will save the volunteers hours of work so we can focus on getting the tags on properly.”
McGunnigal, St. Bede Admissions director, welcomes the effort by Johnson, a 1990 St. Bede graduate and originally from Hennepin.
While at St. Bede, (Irizarry) Johnson participated in softball, cheerleading and volleyball. After her stint in the service, she and her husband and children lived on military bases including Camp Humphrey, Fort Rucker, Ala.; Tripler Army Medical Center, Fort Knox, Ky.; Fort Drum, N.Y.; Fort Clayton, Panama; Savannah-Hunter Army Airfield in Georgia; Fort Stewart, Ga.; Fort Bliss, El Paso, Texas; Hawaii; Fort Hood, Texas; Fort Benning, Ga.; and then headed back to Texas. Her husband logged 28 years of service, all over the world.
He says he’ll gladly store the boots and host the event.
“I saw on Facebook she had this memorial. I reached out to her,” McGunnigal said.
He said the boots will probably be displayed in the circle in front of the worship building and also will line a 5K run route, which he says should be quite an impressive sight.
Also promoting the boot collection is Peru VFW Commander Andy Ruggerio, an Air Force veteran whose duties included working on a cruise missile base.