A dozen or so pickups and other vehicles idled in the snow-packed parking lot outside Mount Pisgah Cemetery this morning as gray billows of exhaust wafted over frozen windshields. Inside, about 20 or so Camel Kid wrestlers and their parents sat bundled in puffy parkas, hats, and gloves, waiting for the signal to head out into the frigid, sub-zero temperatures, where they would proceed to tromp through the rows of headstones placing American flags on the gravestones of fallen veterans.
It’s become a tradition for these young wrestlers, who for the past five years, have come out every Veterans and Memorial Day to honor these local heroes. This is a part of coach Mike Johnson’s Fallen Heroes program, where along with paying tribute to living veterans year-round, and not just on national holidays, each wrestler is also assigned a perished veteran to represent each season by wearing that soldier’s name on the back of their game-day T-shirt and honoring that person’s life by learning about their lives and reaching out to their respective families to show their gratitude as a small symbol of remembrance and appreciation.
As a Gulf War veteran, Johnson knows a lot about living with battle scars and PTSD. He started the program about five years ago in honor of two men who had served alongside him, Private First Class (PFC) Cory Winkle and PFC Marty Davis, who were both killed in a grenade explosion while fighting on the frontlines.
“There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t think about these guys,” Johnson said. “That never goes away, and this is one way to remember them.”
The first year, Johnson’s wrestlers represented Wyoming veterans who died in combat, and in the ensuing years, they’ve branched out to include veterans from across the country. The program has had an enormous impact on both the wrestlers and the families of the fallen heroes, Johnson said, including Gillette resident Kathy Hopkins, whose husband Rich passed four years ago from complications stemming from exposure to Agent Orange in Vietnam.
Today, Kathy stood beside 13-year-old Camel Kid wrestler Antonio Avila, who has placed a flag on her husband’s grave twice annually for the past two years. For Kathy, it’s a bittersweet moment of loss and redemption, and she struggles to put into words what it means to have this boy by her side remembering and honoring her husband and his service.
He’s a hero in his own right, she said of Antonio.
Unexpectedly, this spright wrestler has helped Kathy to heal some of the painful wounds of her past.
Kathy bent over her phone next to Antonio’s mother, AshLee Avila, comparing schedules. Sitting on the couch in Kathy’s comfortable living room, the two plug in practice times and game dates and synchronize schedules for Antonio’s upcoming week, divided by school, wrestling, and football.
Like a proud mother, Kathy ticked off a long list of Antonio’s strengths as both a student and athlete, praising his dedication and hard work in everything he does. He’s a thinker, she said, and all heart. Now, she attends all of his sports games and tournaments, where she can often be seen cheering wildly from the bleachers. She even travels across states to watch and support Antonio and his athletics.
“It’s a full-time job for her,” AshLee laughed.
This spirited woman of today, talking excitedly about upcoming travel plans and officiating at upcoming wresting tournaments, bears no resemblance to the former socially withdrawn woman who once avoided people and had no interest in even leaving her home.
After Rich died, in 2016, she fell into a deep funk. The two had been married for almost 46 years, having met back home in Brooklyn, New York, when Kathy was just 19 years old. Rich had been working on Wall Street when he was drafted into the Army, where he went on to serve as a combat engineer. He’d been back from Vietnam just under a month when she’d met him. A couple weeks later, he proposed and the two got married a year later. They left the East Coast for Oregon, where they’d planned to join a commune.
Kathy smiled with a shrug. What can she say? They were hippies. It was the 60s, and they were just kids. The pair made it as far as Wyoming, where despite their dreams to bum around, they settled down and had three kids. Wrestling had been a huge part of their lives as had sports in general.
“This is a great town for kids,” she said, and there had never been a good reason to leave.
Losing Rich was like a sucker punch in the gut, and after he died, she fell into a deep depression.
“That’s the trouble with falling in love when you’re 19,” Kathy said. “It’s all you know. When you lose your partner, you lose yourself.”
Initially, when Antonio contacted Kathy three years ago to let her know that he would be wrestling in honor of her husband, she struggled with it. AshLee and her husband Tony invited her to come with them to one of Antonio’s matches. Kathy showed up, but stood in the back far behind the crowd, and with her hair covering her face. She knew this crowd well. In fact, many of these faces had been a big part of her life with Rich once. Now, it just felt lonely there without him.
Seeing her husband’s name on the back of Antonio’s T-shirt was admittedly hard for her at first.
“It brought up a lot of emotion for me,” she said. “It was painful, and complicated, but it also felt good to see Rich honored that way.”
When AshLee invited Kathy to the following week’s match in Buffalo, she was surprised to see Kathy walk into the gym. Soon, Kathy was showing up to all of the matches, and when it came time for Antonio to wrestle at Nationals in Las Vegas the following spring, Kathy flew out with the family.
Now, she’s just part of their wrestling family, and it’s like she’s always been there, AshLee said.
“She yells and screams for me all the time,” Antonio said with a shy smile behind braces. “It’s nice.”
For his part, wrestling in honor of Rich has also helped Antonio grow in unexpected ways and opened his eyes to the sacrifices soldiers make for the rest of us.
“Nothing comes for free,” he said, “and if they didn’t fight for our freedoms, we wouldn’t have them.”
It’s also taught him to never put his head down, and to work hard no matter what and have respect for his opponents.
“It’s helped me have good sportsmanship,” he said, “and to cheer for others.”
Now, Kathy has once again renewed her officiator’s license, and without Rich, has stepped back onto the mat.
“I think he would have really liked that,” she said.
He knows the soldier’s story by heart. Standing in the middle of a circle in the gym with his Camel Kid wrestling teammates listening, 10-year-old Breckin Henry shared details about Sergeant FC Cribben’s life. Born in 1984, Cribben served four tours overseas before he was killed in battle at age 35. He left behind a wife and two boys, Connor and Wyatt, in Colorado Springs, Colorado. The Sergeant’s funeral was delayed due to a sandstorm. Breckin imagined that must have been hard for the family —waiting for his body to come home.
The other wrestlers stand in silence as Breckin finished his recitation of Cribben’s story, before leading them through their warmup that night at Thunder Basin High School. He, like the other wrestlers, was wearing a black T-shirt with his soldier’s name across the back.
This is something that makes Breckin proud. It makes him a better wrestler, too, he said. If he’s behind, now he works harder. If he’s losing, he works more diligently to squash those negative emotions, remembering the valor of someone who died on the battlefield fighting for his freedom, which at 10, he has only a slight grasp of beyond knowing it’s an essential right for which he’s grateful.
“I want to honor him and make him proud,” Breckin said of Cribben, his boyish freckles and braces standing in direct contrast to the tenor of his words.
Once, one of Cribben’s former friends, who had served alongside him, had tears in his eyes when he saw his friend’s name on the back of Breckin’s T-shirt at a wrestling tournament in Colorado. I know that guy, the stranger had told him. That was one of his best friends, he’d said, and he told Breckin that it made his heart full to see him being honored like that.
“That was pretty cool,” Breckin said with a big smile.
Having the boys wrestle for a fallen hero made sense to Johnson, who thought that the boys, too, could benefit from knowing and honoring those soldiers who died in combat, fighting for their country, beginning with the two heroes he knew personally.
“I wanted them to know the story behind the person,” Johnson said, explaining that the wrestlers are asked to research or “Google” their soldier’s name and to reach out to their families and friends. Thus far, the families have been receptive, with only one that Johnson’s aware of, who chose not to participate.
Some families have driven for hours from neighboring states to see a Camel Kid wrestling in honor of their family member. There are several stories of parents watching the wrestlers with tears in their eyes, so grateful that someone was taking the time to remember their son or daughter’s life and service.
Johnson knows the importance of those connections and knows the many ways a program like this can touch and save lives.
HEALING AT HOME
“It’s been more than I expected,” he said, visibly emotional, especially stories like Kathy’s. Johnson had been close to both Rich and Kathy, and it had been hard on him to see Kathy struggling after Rich’s passing.
“It was hard to watch her go under a rock,” he said, and he thought Antonio would be a big help in bringing her around.
Not only had Antonio represented his own friend, Gillette native Army Specialist Manuel Davila, who was 22, and the only Wyoming resident to be killed during the first Persian Gulf War, but Antonio is also one of the best wrestlers his age in the state, so Johnson thought his winning streak would be a further boost for Kathy.
“It was awesome to see her come around that way,” he said.
Typically, the Camel Kids each get a new veteran every year with the exception of Antonio, who specifically requests Rich each year given Kathy’s attachment to both he and his family. This year, Antonio was tasked with learning more about the Vietnam War to have a better understanding of Rich’s experience and history. Like everything else he does, Antonio delved into the past and continues to study one of the country’s most contentious military conflicts, all the while keeping his grades up and juggling wrestling practices and games along with his other activities.
Along with honoring the fallen, Johnson has also been pleasantly surprised to see the patriotism catch on amongst the wrestlers. Now, when they see veterans out in public, he said, they walk right on up to shake that person’s hand and thank them for their service.
“It’s pretty cool to see,” he said.
The spirit of honor and valor has similarly seeped into their characters and sportsmanship, Johnson also noted. Now, when one of his wrestlers gets frustrated during a duel, Johnson reminds them that they’re wrestling for a soldier who didn’t have the choice to break down or give up, a message that seems to resonate among the boys.
As for AshLee, she’s similarly proud to see the changes this program has instilled in her son.
“He’s learning so much more than just wrestling,” she said. “He’s learning humility and appreciation for our veterans. How cool is that?”