They’d just buried their 23-year-old son, Damon. Richard and Patricia Winkleman then prepared to attend a funeral for one of his comrades, also killed in Afghanistan. After driving 10 hours that night, they arrived with food and other donations from their congregation, St. John Lutheran, Lakeville (McZena), Ohio.

A photo and flag rest at the grave of Damon Winkleman. The Army combat medic and member of St. John Lutheran Church, Lakeville, Ohio, was killed in action in September 2009.

“It made quite an impact that we would leave immediately after our son’s funeral and drive all night to attend their son’s funeral the next morning,” said Damon’s father, Sgt. Maj. Richard Winkleman, 300th Military Police Brigade. “We took the blessings we received and immediately passed them on to the other soldier’s family.”

And the blessings the Winklemans received from St. John came in innumerable ways.

News of Damon’s death last September spread quickly throughout their rural community. St. John‘s members immediately put the family on the prayer chain. Within an hour, Winkleman said 60 percent of the congregation had arrived at their door. Over the next few days, parishioners rotated — talking, praying and crying with the family. They also greeted visitors, answered the phone, cleaned and prepared meals.

“They insisted that we do nothing so we could sit and talk with visitors,” Winkleman said. “It was a continuous banquet for days. The congregation made sure we were taken care of.”

Despite their loss, Winkleman said he and Patricia and their two other adult sons, Nathan and Jason, felt blessed with the outpouring of support from St. John. They were particularly touched by a scholarship fund the congregation established in Damon’s name and a memorial tree members planted in their yard.

They remain grateful for members’ continued prayers, phone calls and visits. “For the first couple of months you’re living in this whirlwind trance,” he said. “When reality sets in and you realize this is long term, family and church become so important.”

Fact: They need us

As U.S. combat operations continue in the Middle East, so do opportunities for the church to support military members and families like the Winklemans, church leaders say. As of May 3, the U.S. death toll for Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan and other locations stood at 5,483, according to the U.S. Defense Department.

“Our approach has always been that it doesn’t matter whether you’re for or against our involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan,” said Steven P. Ridenhour, pastor of Holy Trinity Lutheran Church, Wytheville, Va. “The fact of the matter is we have men and women there who have left their families behind and need our support.”

To help, Holy Trinity has raised nearly $22,000 for its Troop Support Ministry, sending hundreds of care packages and 3,500 to 4,000 phone cards since December 2004.

Through Operation Joshua, members of Hope Lutheran Church, Fargo, N.D., also send care packages to “boost troops’ morale, relieve their tension, and help them laugh and smile a little bit,” said Ann Seczko, coordinator of Hope Care caring ministries.

Hope‘s members pray over the packages before mailing them. “Our prayers for them include inner strength and the knowledge that Americans will never forget the sacrifices they are making for all of us,” Seczko said.

Sgt. Maj. Richard Winkleman (right) of the 300th Military Police Brigade in Columbus, Ohio, says his congregation, St. John Lutheran Church, Lakeville, Ohio, supports him emotionally while he grieves for his son, Damon, killed in action in September 2009.

Sgt. Maj. Richard Winkleman (right) of the 300th Military Police Brigade in Columbus, Ohio, says his congregation, St. John Lutheran Church, Lakeville, Ohio, supports him emotionally while he grieves for his son, Damon, killed in action in September 2009.

Not alone

“I’ve never experienced anything like that in my life,” Angela Davis said of the support she received from Bethlehem Lutheran Church, Aberdeen, S.D., while her future husband, Thomas, was deployed to Iraq for seven months in 2008. “I felt surrounded by caring people. They were right there anytime I needed them. I didn’t even have to say, ‘I’m having a hard time today.’ They were very proactive in reaching out.”

During his deployment, Tim Martin had peace of mind knowing Christ Lutheran Church, Roanoke, Va., was supporting his wife, Betsy, and providing positive role models for his teenage daughters, Carly and Caryn.

“One of the key issues for me was that my daughters have strong ties to church, family and school for positive support,” said Martin, who deployed to Iraq with the Third Naval Construction Regiment, attached to the First Marine Expeditionary Force, in 2006-07. “I wanted them to feel secure while I was gone, around people who could look out for them.”

Youth group leaders provided a sounding board for Carly, Martin said. “She didn’t talk about her feelings [about my deployment] with my wife or at school,” he added. “But the youth activities gave her an outlet to vent some of her frustrations.”

And the congregation helped Martin feel connected to his family, thousands of miles away. “I knew where they were every Sunday morning,” he said. “I knew they were safe. It was something that brought a little peace and comfort.”

The congregation also sent Martin a large greeting card with handwritten messages like “I’m praying for you and your men.”

“It was reassuring to know that people were thinking about not only me but everyone else over there,” he said. “Sometimes you can feel like you’re the only guy out there on an island. But when you get those cards, you realize you’re not alone.”

While deployed to Iraq in 2008, Carly Taylor received numerous cards, e-mails and well-wishes via Facebook from members of her congregation, Epiphany Lutheran, Pickerington, Ohio.

Taylor’s dad, Michael Myers, an Epiphany member and an Army Reservist himself, told other parishioners that in his experience the little gestures — letters, cards and well-wishes — mean the most. “Every time she moved from one training assignment to the next, I couldn’t keep her address updated at the church office quick enough,” he said.

People continue to ask Myers about Carly, who is currently stationed at Fort Campbell on the Kentucky-Tennessee border. “It’s nice to know that others are still thinking about her,” he said.

Cindy Novak

Novak is a freelance writer and a member of Our Saviour Lutheran Church in Naperville, Ill.

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