'Part of a Brotherhood'

Since Sandy Terwiske’s son died in Afghanistan, his comrades in arms have done their best to fill the void

May 22, 2019
 

In 2012, Sandy Terwiske lost her son Alec in combat in Afghanistan. In the same instant, she gained a Marine battalion of surrogate sons.
 
Terwiske — a team member at Toyota Motor Manufacturing, Indiana the past 17 years — admits the one does not equal the other. But it helps.
 
“Every Mother’s Day, someone sends me flowers — from Alec,” says Terwiske, who inspects the final assembly of Siennas and Highlanders. “I have no clue who it is.”
 
Odds are it’s one of the 50 or more Marines who served alongside Lance Cpl. Alec in the Combat Engineer Battalion. Their job: to defuse bombs. Their location: Helmand Province, known by those who’ve been deployed there as the “Valley of Death.”
 
Proud Mom -- Sandy Terwiske celebrates with her son Alec on the day he completed his basic training as a Marine.
‘He Loved Every Minute of It’
 
Terwiske discovered that distressing fact via Google when Alec told her where he was headed.
 
“I was scared. Really scared,” she says now. “I asked Alec if he was scared. He said, ‘No. I’ve had the best training in the world. If something does happen to me, I have no control over that.’ And he pointed out that some of the guys had little kids. ‘So if something happens to them, their kids are going to have to grow up without a dad,’ he said. ‘I don’t have a child. If something is going to happen, it should happen to me.’
 
“It was almost like he was telling me goodbye,” she continues. “At the time, I didn’t want to think something would happen. But when I look back on it, I think, maybe he knew.”
 
Through the first five months of his deployment, though, all was well. Mother and son stayed in regular contact, thanks to Facebook Messenger and the cherished real-time phone call.
 
“He loved every minute of it,” says Terwiske. “He was always so excited about his job. He called me the day before he was killed. That was the last I heard from him. I messaged him after that, but he didn’t message me back. And I thought, ‘What if something happened to him?’ But then I thought, ‘Don’t say that or something will happen.’”
 ‘I’m Sorry Ma’am’
 
So Terwiske carried on with her daily routine, working at the plant by day and finding ways to stay connected with Alec by night. That included the moment when, as she was putting together a care package for her son, she heard a vehicle pull into her driveway.
 
“I could hear the doors closing, so I looked through the window and saw three Marines getting out,” she says. “I immediately fell to my knees. I had to crawl from my kitchen to the front door. By the time I opened it, they were on the porch. I was crying so hard, I could hardly get the words out. I said, ‘Please tell me this isn’t about my boy. Please tell me he’s still living.’ And one of them said to me, ‘I’m sorry ma’am.’”
 
Tears of Sorrow -- Current and former Marines do what they can to help Terwiske endure the anguish of her son's full military funeral.
 

‘He Was Their Rock’
 
Nearly seven years have passed since that fateful day, but the emotion in Terwiske’s voice when she recounts it remains just as raw. Somehow, she manages to keep putting one foot in front of the other, leaning heavily on the support of her children — daughters Ashlee and Codi and oldest son Brant, who also works at TMMI — and the brood who adopted her in the wake of Alec’s death.
 
As she puts it: Once you’re a Marine, you’re part of a brotherhood.
 
“There’s never a day when one of them doesn’t contact me, ‘Hey Mom, you doin’ OK today?’ or something,” says Terwiske. “Every Memorial Day, about 20-30 Marines visit me. When they get married, they invite me to their weddings. They invite me to their kids’ birthday parties.
 
“They tell me that Alec was their motivator,” she adds. “He was the one who said, ‘Come on, guys. We can do this. Let’s just get it done.’ He was their rock. It’s as if his strength still helps them carry on.”
 
Terwiske says her colleagues at the plant have also been a steadying influence. She was especially touched when Senior Vice President Norm Bafunno, who was TMMI president at the time, cut short his trip to Japan to attend Alec’s funeral and spend 30 minutes with her, one-on-one. And members of the TMMI chapter of the Toyota Veterans Association visited the funeral home and presented Terwiske with a challenge coin and certificate in honor of Alec.
 
And just last month, Sen. Todd Young (R-Indiana), visited with Terwiske at the plant. The two are long-time friends. For several years, Sen. Young wore a bracelet with Alec’s name on it — that he presented to President Trump at the conclusion of his State of the Union address in February.
 

‘Let Them Talk, You Listen’
 
This brave Gold Star mother appreciates every act of kindness, no matter how small. That’s something to think about as we all prepare to honor the fallen on Memorial Day.
 
“You can’t really know the sacrifice a military family makes until you have someone in it,” she says. “But you can thank every veteran you see, no matter how old they are. And if their family is with them, you can them, too.
 
“The main thing is to be there for them if they need to talk. Once they start talking about their experiences, they can slowly heal. But if they keep them bottled up inside, they’ll never heal. Just let them talk and you listen. It doesn’t cost a thing. Just a little time.”
 
By Dan Miller

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