Serving in Warrior's Weekend mends hearts

Johnna Walters volunteers for Warrior's Weekend after the death of her husband, Cpl. Gary Walters, who died in Iraq in 2005.
  • WARRIOR'S WEEKEND SCHEDULE

  • FRIDAY

    • Noon: Arrive at Prasek's in Hillje, 29714 U.S. 59, El Campo

    • 1:15 p.m.: Drive through Ganado

    • 1:30 p.m.: Drive through Edna

    • 2:30 p.m.: Arrive at Faith Family Church, 2002 E. Mockingbird Lane, Victoria

    • 3 p.m.: Warrior's Weekend Field of ...

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  • WARRIOR'S WEEKEND SCHEDULE

    FRIDAY

    • Noon: Arrive at Prasek's in Hillje, 29714 U.S. 59, El Campo

    • 1:15 p.m.: Drive through Ganado

    • 1:30 p.m.: Drive through Edna

    • 2:30 p.m.: Arrive at Faith Family Church, 2002 E. Mockingbird Lane, Victoria

    • 3 p.m.: Warrior's Weekend Field of Honor ceremony begins

    • 4:15 p.m.: Depart for Port O'Connor, with a procession through Victoria on Navarro Street

    SATURDAY

    • 7:45 a.m.: Soldiers from Brooke Army Medical Center pass through Cuero

    • 8:15 a.m.: Soldiers from Brooke Army Medical Center pass through Victoria

    • 9-9:30 a.m.: Arrive at Froggies Bait Dock, 2649 Stella St., Port O'Connor

    • 10 a.m.: Big tent opens in Port O'Connor

    • 2-2:30 p.m.: Soldiers return with their catch

    • 6-8 p.m.: Celebration, awards banquet and barbecue at the Big Tent in Port O'Connor

    SUNDAY

    • 11 a.m.: Soldiers depart

Johnna Walters was home with her 4-year-old son and was 19 weeks pregnant when an Army chaplain and a soldier knocked on her front door.

Your husband is dead, they told her. Cpl. Gary Walters was killed instantly when his convoy was struck by an IED in Baghdad.

"Trent (their son) was there when we got notified, so he saw a really traumatic thing. I did not handle it well - with the hormones and the sheer knowledge of it, and it traumatized him. I don't want him to see that again - it was horrible," Walters remembered of that day - April 25, 2005, at Fort Stewart, Ga.

The little family moved back to Victoria, minus their daddy, and Walters worked to rebuild their lives.

She is raising the boys, Trent, now 13 and Trace, now 7, acting as both their mother and father.

In the eight years since her husband's death, she has tried to balance the boys' different reactions, with Trent wanting to avoid pictures of his dad and Trace wanting to hang the photos everywhere.

The family has tried to remember only the happy days, still celebrating Gary Walter's birthday with a cake and presents each year.

But it was when she started serving other military families, she said, when they all really started to heal.

Walters started volunteering for Warrior's Weekend in 2009 on a whim, going down to Port O'Connor to help with the all-expenses paid fishing trip for wounded warriors from the War on Terror.

In 2011, she joined Warrior Wives of Warrior's Weekend to provide fellowship with other wives and widows of military men.

By 2012, Walters had become a full-time volunteer, working with Ron Kocian, the event founder and president, to bring 700 wounded soldiers and their families to the Crossroads for the fishing trip.

"I don't think they know what they have given my son, my youngest. They have given him the daddy he never met. And they have given my oldest, little by little, healing. And it is healing for me, too. I finally get to do something in his honor. It doesn't have his name on it, but he loved his men, and bringing these men here to have a great weekend means I have honored my husband," Walters said.

Kocian, who started the nonprofit in 2007, said Warrior's Weekend is completely dependent on volunteers. He does not have a single paid staff member but has nearly 300 volunteers and about 400 boats taking the soldiers and Marines fishing Saturday.

"We have a really, really good, solid core that can always be counted on," Kocian said, adding that they start planning for the next Warrior's Weekend while they are still in Port O'Connor for the fishing trip.

This year, Kocian said the weekend trip is costing the organization about $350,000.

Though it is too late to officially sign up as a volunteer, Kocian said they can never have too many people greeting the warriors.

"Come down to Port O'Connor, come to Faith Family and give them a hug. ... It never hurts to get more people hugging and loving and thanking. That is what is needed right now," Kocian said.

Walters said she wouldn't miss the weekend. It changes lives, including hers.

"The first year, I got to see the guys come down from the dock; it was just amazing. ... The outpouring of love, it brings you to tears. It is a little heart wrenching for me - my husband didn't get that - but it is nice to see them," Walters said, battling back tears. "The military is just a big family, one of the biggest families you will ever see. It doesn't matter what branch."