Gold Star Mother Turns Tragedy into a New Purpose

Gold Star Mother Turns Tragedy into a New Purpose by Kate Dugger, Rives, Tennessee

The young man in the photo looked like most of the young Marines I’d met over the years. Fresh-faced, tight haircut, and an invincible all-knowing grin. I could see that Alec Catherwood was a Marine to his soul. It’s what he wanted to be when he was a child, and a Marine he was, right up to the day he was killed in action. He was 19, not old enough to buy a beer or rent a hotel room on his own.

Lance Corporal Alec E. Catherwood was killed in action in Afghanistan on October 14, 2010. He had been in country less than a month. Catherwood was part of 3rd Marines, 5th battalion, 3/5 for short, spoken three, five, nicknamed Darkhorse. The unit arrived in the Helmand province of Afghanistan late in September. In October, they took over in Sangin, a river valley, with orders to eliminate the Taliban. Darkhorse started taking casualties on October 13. They didn’t stop coming

Alec Catherwood and mother Gretchen Catherwood.
Alec Catherwood and mother Gretchen Catherwood.

until January. In total the 3/5 Marines took 25 casualties (KIA), 184 were wounded, and 34 lost at least one limb. The 25 Marines lost from 3/5 in Sangin are referred to as “the 3/5 25.”

“Their faces are burned into my memory.” Said Gretchen Catherwood about the Marines who notified her of her son’s death. The memories were tough. Every time she looked out any window she would see them. Her memories of Alec were anywhere and everywhere she looked—in their home and around their town. “Even driving down the street, I’d see him where he used to run.” When Kirk, Alec’s father, was given the chance to relocate through his employer, they did. In 2012, the Catherwoods moved from Illinois to Tennessee.

Four years later, I sat in the Catherwoods’ dining room at their home in Paris, Tennessee. Through the open window, I heard the USMC flag snapping in the breeze. Gretchen sat to my left, recalling stories about her son. “How do you sum up a whole life?” she said. Alec was always ready with a laugh or a joke. “He was always making me laugh at the most inappropriate times.” He made all the guys in his unit laugh. His fellow Marines say he was trying to make people laugh right until the end.

“He had a big heart,” she said. Alec made friends everywhere, and defended them when necessary. Despite a long standing rivalry, he managed to get kids from the two high schools back home to hang out, laugh and have a good time. Something that hadn’t happened before. Ever. Alec was the perfect kid for such a task, given his sense of humor. Jokes and laughter are often the first bonds of friendship. Friendships that inspired strong loyalty. Loyalty returned even now, as a friend shovels snow off his grave in the winter.

In 2013, Gretchen heard some of the Marines from the 3/5 saying that it was good to be able to get back together again with people who could understand what they had been through. It’s easier to talk to someone who’s shared the same tough experiences.

The Catherwoods understood the need for combat veterans to find fellowship. They needed a place to decompress in the company of others who could relate to where they were coming from. For someone who has never seen combat, there is no way to know. Over many sleepless nights, Gretchen actively sought an answer to the feeling of isolation so many veterans experience. That same feeling causes high suicide rates in our veterans. It clicked. The idea for the Darkhorse Lodge came to her.

“I found a new purpose,” Gretchen said. She and Kirk began planning and designing a retreat for combat veterans. It will honor the 3/5 25. There will be 5 cabins with 5 rooms. Each room will be named for one of the lost Marines. There will be dining hall, which will bear the name Bowman, after Tim Bowman, a National Guard specialist who committed suicide on Thanksgiving Day, 2005. The lodge will be staffed by veterans, who will stay in a separate staff cabin.

To build this retreat, and to run it, will not come cheaply. Darkhorse Lodge is in need of donations. While donations of goods and materials are very much appreciated and welcomed, monetary donations are what is needed the most right now.

The lodge has 28 acres of wooded property. It’s approximately 5 miles from Kentucky Lake.  When it is opened guests will be able to relax while woodworking, caring for horses, or fishing on Kentucky Lake. Reminiscing and catching up can be done around bonfires at night. Stays will be five days in length and completely free of charge. The first stay is reserved for the families of the 3/5 25.

Gretchen said, “Clearly not enough is being done for these guys—when we are losing guys to suicide every single day.” She cited the recent suicide of Tom Young, a veteran from southern Illinois. He contacted the VA no less than four times. “That guy did everything right. Everything right.”

On the final call to the suicide hotline, Young was put on hold, then was told someone would return his call the following day. For that young man, there was no tomorrow. He stepped in front of a train, leaving behind two young daughters. Incidents like these leave veterans wondering who cares about them. People like the Catherwoods care. They’re trying to make things better for those who came home and honor the memory of those who didn’t. “If Alec had come home, I wish somebody would have done something like this for him.”

Visit darkhorselodge.org or find Darkhorse Lodge on Facebook to keep up to date on progress and fundraising info.

3 Ways You Can Help That Won’t Cost Anything Extra

Amazon Smile
Using your normal Amazon login and password, sign on to Amazon Smile. Choose Darkhorse Lodge, Inc. as your charity to support. This only needs to be done once. Amazon will remember your charity for future purchases on Amazon Smile.

Kroger Community Rewards Program
If you have a Kroger Plus Card, click Sign In/Register. If you haven’t already done so, sign up for a Kroger Rewards account online.
Once you have the online account, click on “Account.”
Click “Edit KrogerCommunity Rewards” information and enter your Plus Card number.
Update or confirm your information.
Enter #78333 as the NPO number.
Select Darkhorse Lodge from the list and click “confirm.”
When you use your Plus Card, we will receive a percentage of what you spend.

Purchase Prairie Farms Milk
On one gallon and ½ gallon sizes, peel off the sticker on the cap. Go to www.prairiefarms.com and click on the “Our Caps Your Cause” tab. From the dropdown menu select Darkhorse Lodge, Inc. as the registered charity and enter the code(s) from your caps.
Please tell your friends and shop with a purpose!