When Ellen Comfort learned her son died in Afghanistan in 2010, she said she had two choices on what to do next. She could dwell on his loss and face the darkness that comes with focusing on pain.
Or, she could live the life her son Capt. Kyle Comfort, an Army Ranger with the 3rd Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment, lived.
Ellen chose to jump into life with her son’s same adventurous spirit. In this case, it involved a 120-mph free fall from 13,500 feet.
Ellen Comfort and Sandee Rouse, Gold Star mothers from the 75th Ranger Regiment, skydived with Special Operations Command’s parachute demonstration team, the Para-Commandos, March 13, 2021 at Skydive City in Zephyrhills, Florida. Para-Commandos’ tandem jumps allow families of fallen service members to connect with their heroes by going through some of the same military experiences they had. It also helps Gold Star families support each other in healing.
“When I read some people find relief from grief by participating in activities their loved one did, it was a relief to me,” Ellen said. “Kyle was just such an adventurous spirit and soul and I thought, I’m going to do this.”
“What was I going to do, sit at home and think about the pain? No, I took this option,” she said. “I’m a person of action. I can’t just sit here and not do anything. When I’m around people who are jumping from airplanes and doing all the things he did, I feel like I’m closer to him, I feel like I’m with him.”
Much like Ellen’s son who spent much of his time in the air as a parachutist and airborne qualified Soldier, Sandee’s son Private 1st Class Jim Markwell was parachute qualified too.
Markwell, a 1st Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment medic, died in 1989 in Operation Just Cause during ground operations after parachuting into Panama.
“This was on my bucket list because I wanted to experience what both my boys did as both were airborne, especially Jim,” Sandee said. “People used to ask him all the time why he wanted to jump. He would say, ‘because of the rush.’ So I thought I would try and jump out of a perfectly good airplane to feel his rush,” she added with a laugh.
As a Gold Star Family Advocate, Sandee has connected with many families going through exactly what she experienced Christmas Day 1989 – Soldiers in uniform knocking on her door. But connecting with other families wasn’t always natural for her.
“It took 11 years after Jim died for me to realize this was my God mission,” Sandee said. “I started as a Gold Star Advocate in March 2001, then 9/11 happened and a month later we were taking care of our first family after a helicopter crash from a mission going into Afghanistan.”
She agreed with Ellen that knock on the door leaves families at a crossroads.
“When I talk to parents, when somebody’s grieving they don’t necessarily absorb everything being said to them,” Sandee said. “But I’ve always told them, you have two choices. You can either continue to grieve, or you can grieve and then you can turn around and find a way to honor your child. If you continue to grieve, you let the enemy win twice.”
Ellen said it was difficult for her to reach out and connect with other families or use the resources available to grieving families. But she’s happy she finally did open to the support she didn’t know she needed.
“I wasn’t a person who initially participated in all this stuff, but not because I wasn’t included or received invitations,” Ellen said. “I didn’t recognize the benefit it would be to me, to be around the people and to experience that feeling again. When Kyle died it was the absence of energy. He was such an energetic and extroverted person. There was no longer any energy for me. I just needed that rush, I needed that energy.”
Both moms agreed the events they’ve been invited to, be it Ranger Balls or skydiving with the Para-Commandos, provided that connection to their sons. They also said that feeling of connection is key for grieving families.
“We have families that have started funds to help other Gold Stars, or to help the needy,” Sandee said. “We’ve got so many wonderful Ranger families who have gotten so many things going that honors their child and keeps that person alive. But everybody has to find their own way and get out of their own way to allow themselves to do this, whatever it turns out to be.”
“Like they have a brotherhood, we have a motherhood, or a familyhood. They connect us,” Sandee added.
Ellen said she’s happy to have made those connections despite the pain she faced. She knows Kyle is proud of how she’s taken the next step despite not being able to at first.
“If I could have one more conversation with Kyle, I would ask him if he’s proud of me for being brave enough to dare to live life, to be happy, healthy, joyful and grateful, because I’m all those sings,” Ellen said. “I think he would say, ‘You know what mom, you got this girl. You go!’”