Seventeen women who lost their only children, killed while serving on active duty, traveled to Hilton Head Island this week for a vacation that is part reunion and part introduction.
The 17 mothers had communicated over Facebook and other social media for a year, connecting over the loss of their children. However, only a handful of them had met in person.
They call themselves the "Gold Star One and Only," an offshoot of the Gold Star Mothers Club that provides support to mothers who lost children on active duty. They have come to Hilton Head from as far west as Seattle and as far north as Michigan, thanks to Operation R&R, a nonprofit group that coordinated the trip. Through Sunday, they'll stay at the Owners Club of Hilton Head, bonding over memories of their children and their shared experiences.
"Most of the time, we just post pictures of our sons, so it was neat to put a face to the name," said Tammy Eakes, of Apex, N.C. "We talk all the time on Facebook; it's great to be able to hug them."
Through their Facebook pages, they could share feelings of depression or anger or talk about other problems they faced.
"Our situations are all the same, but we all have smaller situations inside of it," said Lululima Nelson of Speedway, Ind. "We're a very unique group, and we help each other out."
Sixteen of the mothers ate breakfast together Monday at the Owners Club, planning several events scheduled for the week, including a cooking demonstration, a dolphin cruise and a midweek trip to Savannah. A 17th mother is scheduled to arrive Thursday, Evans said.
Operation R&R helps military members and their families take vacations on the island, with activities arranged through the organization's connections with local businesses. Operation R&R founder Grant Evans said more than 400 businesses and organizations have offered the charity discounts and deals to ensure memorable vacations.
"We don't expect anything, but we're grateful for opportunities like this," said mother Tina Buschke, of Battle Creek, Mich. "We're overwhelmed by their generosity."
Many of the women were just looking forward to spending time with those who have supported and comforted them during the past year.
"At home, there's nobody to share the memories of our children with," said Mary Manoukian Calhoun of Lathrop Village, Mich. "I want to be able to share those memories with them this week. We have so many things in common, and you find you have that commonality through that group."
Follow reporter Matt McNab at twitter.com/IPBG_Matt.