OWASSO, Okla. – It’s Natasha’s turn to speak. She’s poised and dignified, dark-haired, tall and beautiful.
Her words carry weight and cut to the quick.
“When I’m asked about my family – I don’t know how normal families live,” she says. “I didn’t have that life.”
Natasha is a military kid. Her father was deployed on her first birthday. He was deployed on her second birthday. He didn’t live to see her turn 3.
On April 14, 1994, Chief Warrant Officer Erik Mounsey was in one of two UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters over northern Iraq as part of a humanitarian mission, Operation Provide Comfort. The two vessels were misidentified as enemy aircraft and shot down by U.S. Air Force F-15 fighter jets. There were no survivors.
Natasha’s mother, Kaye, first heard about the incident while watching CNN. She saw President Clinton offering comfort to the victims' families.
“That couldn’t involve Erik,” she thought. “They would have told me …”
Messengers soon arrived to inform Kaye that Erik was one of 26 people killed in friendly fire. He was 28.
“The public’s perception is that the government will take care of military families,” Kaye says. “I’m here to tell you, they didn’t for us.”
Kaye says she was given 30 days to vacate government housing. Erik died on April 14. On April 15, Kaye says, military pay ceased.
“He used to always get off the phone saying, ‘Take care of my little girl.’ How was I going to do that?”
Kaye tells this story before 900 teary-eyed men and women during an evening gala on Memorial Day. It’s the emotional climax to a series of events designed to provide relief to families like the Mounseys.
One hundred seventy-two flags line the entrance to the Patriot Golf Club. It’s the third annual Patriot Cup, a golf tournament founded by Major Dan Rooney to benefit his Folds of Honor Foundation.
Rickie Fowler is here. So are Gary Woodland, Tom Lehman, Peter Jacobsen, Corey Pavin, Ben Crane, Bo Van Pelt and a slew of other PGA and Champions tour players. Country music legend Vince Gill is here, as well as former Oklahoma State quarterback Brandon Weeden and actor Craig T. Nelson.
There are Budweiser Clydesdales, a 21-gun salute, a 21-ball salute and multiple flyovers. There is a DJ playing music over loudspeakers, hospitality tents, merchandise for sale, and more than 3,000 people in attendance on this Monday. The pro-am features one tour player or celebrity, one military member with a desired handicap of 5 or less, and one financial donor on each team. It’s the Flyboys vs. the Ground Pound.
“It’s God, country and golf,” Major Rooney says. “I can’t think of anything better.”
It’s all aimed at raising money for the dependents of those killed or injured serving the United States of America. The Folds of Honor Foundation provides educational assistance, primarily through scholarships of $5,000 annually, to spouses, sons and daughters of those who sacrificed for our freedom.
“Freedom,” in a refrain that is repeated by many on this day, “is not free.”
“There are over 1 million dependents of killed or wounded servicemen and women,” Major Rooney says. “More than 87 percent of those dependents do not qualify for any form of federal education assistance. It’s our mission to make sure that no families are left behind.”
Natasha Mounsey (pictured right, with mother Kaye left) is one of 2,600 current scholarship recipients via the Folds of Honor Foundation. Major Rooney expects that number to grow by 1,000 within the next month. (Click for Folds of Honor scholarship information)
“Because my father was killed pre-9/11, I didn’t qualify for most scholarships.” Natasha says. “It’s as if his death wasn’t as significant because it happened before 9/11.”
“Folds of Honor,” she continues with her voice cracking, “helped me when no one else would.”
Natasha is a rising senior at California State University, Northridge. She’s working on her Bachelor of Arts degree in 2-D and 3-D Animation, and carries a 3.8 GPA.
“She’s level headed. She’s kind. She’s witty. She stays out of trouble,” Kaye says. “She’s just like her dad.”
Don’t compare your resume with Major Dan’s. Just don’t. He’s been recognized for his accomplishments by everyone from the White House to People magazine. He’s a PGA professional, an F-16 pilot and ran this February’s Boston Marathon in 3:53:02.
“He’s about the best guy I’ve ever met,” says Vince Gill. “I’d like to meet the person who could say no to him.”
The Patriot Cup, which was established in 2010, is a sister event to Patriot Golf Day. Both raise money for educational assistance to the dependents of the fallen and injured, and have combined – with national sponsors such as Budweiser, Bushnell, Polo Golf and Titleist – to account for $18 million since 2006.
The Cup is more of a celebration. It features tour professionals and celebrities in a fun format: two overall teams, three-player scrambles and match play. There are also the gala and the Monday night concert, this year featuring country music’s Rascal Flatts.
Thirty-eight military members compete and 19 scholarship recipients serve as honorary captains.
It’s also a reminder. A reminder that Memorial Day isn’t just a day off from work, a trip to the beach and a cookout. It’s a day of reverence.
Sometimes, we forget.
Patriot Golf Day takes place over Labor Day weekend. Golfers at participating courses are asked to add $1 or more to their green fee. It raised more than $4 million in 2011, with 3,500 courses taking part. Five years prior, there was just one course.
That inaugural venue was Grand Haven (Mich.) Golf Club. It’s owned and operated by Major Dan and his father, Dr. John Rooney, professor emeritus at Oklahoma State. It also ties in to the founding of Folds of Honor.
“Ladies and gentlemen, we have an American hero on board, Corporal Brock Bucklin; and his twin brother, Corporal Brad Bucklin, is accompanying him home from Iraq,” Major Rooney recalls.
Rooney was headed to his family home in Grand Haven when the flight captain made this announcement. Brock Bucklin was killed in Iraq.
“Please remain seated while Corporal Bucklin’s family receives him in his final homecoming,” the captain requested.
While half the plane started to file out, Rooney watched through the window as the flag-draped casket was greeted by family members, including Brock’s then 4-year-old son, Jacob.
When Rooney (pictured above) was a kid, he used to tag along with his father to the golf course. “It was the only way to spend time with him,” Major Dan says.
At age 12, he was playing in a golf tournament in Stillwater, Okla. Major Steve “Reno” Cortright, who was 40 at the time and a fighter pilot, was part of that group and made quite an impression.
“I thought, ‘Wow, you can be cool and be an adult,” says Rooney, who called now Major General Cortright his “first man-crush.” When Rooney later saw “Top Gun,” he says, “That pushed me over the edge.”
On his way to becoming a fighter pilot, Rooney played golf collegiately at Kansas. He wanted to play at Oklahoma State, but as Tulsa native Garth Brooks sang, “Thank God for Unanswered Prayers.”
Rooney met his wife, Jacqy, at Kansas. They have four daughters: Victoria, Tatum, Mia and Reese.
After turning professional, Rooney played on mini-tours and funneled his earnings into obtaining his pilot’s license. At 26, he entered the Air Force – in the metropolis that is Wichita Falls, Texas – and achieved a dream. His call name: Noonan.
“I was actually able to take away a lot from golf in being a fighter pilot: how to handle the pressure when your heart is pounding, when your palms are sweating,” he says.
Major Rooney did three tours in Iraq. His wingman during No. 2 was Scott “Rookie” Rooks, who was a scratch golfer. “We have the lowest combined handicap over Iraq,” they would joke.
But in all seriousness Rooney says, “You cannot imagine the pressure when your job is to make sure that the heroes on the ground go home safely.”
Rooney loved his job, but felt “a strong calling from God to serve my country out of the cockpit.” That mission began to take focus on a Michigan tarmac. The idea to help dependents financially through scholarships was born from a desire to assist Jacob, fostered by his father’s education background.
“I called my wife at 1:30 in the morning and told her I had to do something, that I had found my mission,” Rooney says. Her response: “Are you drunk?”
The answer was no, but many questions persisted. The Folds of Honor Foundation was born – named for the 13 folds of the American flag. But how do you get something like this off the ground? Where will the money come from? How do you run a non-profit organization?
“I had absolutely no clue as to what I was doing,” Rooney says. “Just making it up as I went along.”
He and his father held the first Patriot Golf Day in 2006 and raised $8,000. More had to be done. So Major Rooney wrote a one-page email to PGA of America CEO Joe Steranka, who is now the chairman of the board for Folds of Honor.
It was proposed to get the grassroots project fully functional in two years time, but as Major Rooney told Steranka and Co., “We don’t have the luxury of time. People need help now.”
Steranka agreed, and opportunity soon combined with ingenuity.
The PGA Championship was contested in 2007 at Southern Hills Country Club in Tulsa. Major Rooney took David Feherty on a flight in an F-16, which was featured on CBS' coverage. Dr. John Rooney reached out to contacts he had acquired while consulting for 20 years with Golf Digest. Patriot Golf Day quickly gained traction and had 500 courses participating that year. They anticipate more than 5,000 this year.
“He’s always been that way,” Dr. Rooney says of his son. “My wife is a perfectionist and I’m a driven person. He has both of those traits and it shows in his achievements.”
Johannah Bordelon recalls the morning.
“My brother woke me up and said, ‘Come on, Mom needs us,’” she says. “She had the telephone in her hand. She was crying …”
Johannah stops. She can’t continue. She’s asked about memories of her father, but says she can’t remember.
“She can,” her mother later says. “She was Daddy’s girl. The moment got to her. She still has a tough time dealing with the loss.”
First Sergeant Michael Joseph Bordelon was born in Scotland, raised in Louisiana, attended LSU, and served in the Army for 18 years.
He was in Italy at the time of the Twin Tower attacks and told his wife, “I need to go there (Iraq).”
The Bordelon family eventually moved back Stateside to Fort Lewis, Wash. Michael had a desk job but reiterated his desire to be deployed.
“I didn’t want him to go, but I had to support him,” his wife, Milalona, says.
Michael was sent to Iraq in 2004. On April 23, 2005, his Stryker vehicle was struck by a Vehicle Borne Improvised Explosive Device (VBIED). A car bomb. A suicide bomber rammed into his vehicle. Three were killed. Bordelon sustained third-degree burns and internal injuries, remaining in the vehicle until all his men were out.
The day before, Michael and Mila had chatted via Yahoo Messenger. Michael told his wife that they were going to be delivering Beanie Babies to Iraqi children. “I am doing it for the children,” he typed.
The next morning, she received the phone call.
“I thought I was dreaming,” she says. “It was 6 o’clock in the morning. I just went numb.”
Mila flew to Germany to meet her husband, who was in critical condition. On April 27, they flew to Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, Texas. It was their 10th wedding anniversary.
On May 10, 2005, First Sergeant Michael Bordelon died. “His body just gave up,” Mila says. “He didn’t give up; his body did.”
Mila grew up in central Philippines. She moved to Hawaii at 15 and met Michael at a club when she was 24. They got married a year later and had son Jacob.
“Jacob doesn’t talk much about his father’s death,” Mila says. “He doesn’t want to make me cry.
“Johannah has lots of stories. … Michael had a hearing aid and Johannah would call him, ‘Dad, Dad.’ And if he didn’t respond, she would yell, ‘Michael, come here now!’ He’d laugh.”
Johannah wears her father’s dog tag around her neck. Mila’s sister gave her niece a necklace last Christmas and Johannah handed it back to her.
“She won’t take (the dog tag) off. If she does, she’s afraid her father won’t be with her,” Mila says.
Like most every widow and spouse of someone debilitated, Mila feared for her children’s future without her husband. All she wanted was for them to go to college. “Just get your degree,” she would say. “That’s all I want from you.”
Folds of Honor is helping make that possible.
Jacob (pictured far right with sister and mother) turned 17 on May 27 and will be a senior in high school in Laveen, Ariz., about 15 miles southwest of Phoenix. He’s thinking about attending Arizona State University and majoring in civil engineering.
“I want to make my daddy proud,” he says.
Johannah will turn 13 in June. She wants to attend law school.
Because Michael was still a resident of Washington and not Arizona at the time of his death, his children did not qualify for state assistance. Thanks to Folds of Honor, both now have college scholarships waiting for them.
“It so touching that they think about the children, making sure they are not forgotten,” Mila says. “Someone is doing something for the children of the fallen.”
All dependents, for that matter. Mila was also awarded a scholarship. She graduated with a BA in Psychology in May.
One of the biggest misconceptions about the scholarships is that they are reserved only for the families of those gravely injured or of those who lost limbs in battle.
Trey Bruce is a logistics officer in the Oklahoma Air National Guard, 138th Fighter Wing – the same unit as Major Rooney. He has served his country for 22 years, currently making sure people and cargo are properly deployed for war or training.
In 1992, as a vehicle mechanic, he ruptured discs in his back when a transmission fell off a lift and onto him. Today, he is considered 70 percent disabled.
Still, he has his life. He has his arms and legs. And he has two daughters. He also had trepidation in applying for the scholarships.
“I hardly feel worthy of being in the same company of the others,” Bruce says. “But I didn’t do this for me; I did it for our girls.”
Sydney (pictured right) is 18 and headed to Oklahoma State University in the fall. She wants to major in education and minor in French. Maybe teach the second grade. Kyra (pictured left) will soon turn 15 and is a rising sophomore at Bixby High School in Bixby, Okla. She, too, is contemplating elementary education – or perhaps theatre – at OSU.
“It doesn’t seem fair, because I didn’t do anything,” Sydney says. “But I’m really grateful.”
Adds Kyra, “It’s amazing that I’m getting rewarded for his being in the military. He has shown how brave he is and how he would do anything to protect his country. I’m so proud of him.”
Ronny Sweger volunteers to promote scholarship application for Folds of Honor. He and his wife, Claudia, are part of the foundation’s Speaker’s Bureau. They also have 5-year-old triplet boys who have received scholarships.
Ronny joined the military at 19, because “college wasn’t for me.” He was on the Special Forces A-team in Afghanistan, where he earned two Purple Hearts and returned with traumatic brain injury (TBI) and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
“Things happen,” he says matter-of-factly. “You have to adapt.”
Part of that adaptation is mental.
“We joined the military to give, not to receive,” Sweger explains.
Others first and then yourself. When you’re military, it applies to every facet of life. Sweger had to overcome the belief that other families were in more need of financial education assistance than his. When he relented, he was able to relax. A burden was lifted. He and his wife are now focused on sharing that feeling.
“It’s my new mission, to help give others the peace of mind that I have received,” Ronny says. “But they have to apply. We don’t give scholarships based on need. We give scholarships because you served.”
It’s a bright, blue, sunny day in eastern Oklahoma. Little Rickies are following bigger Rickie and they’re all wearing flat-brimmed hats.
Fowler has easily drawn the biggest crowd and when he’s finished with his match he takes more than a half-hour to pose for photos and sign every autograph request.
“To be part of a day like this,” Fowler says, “with the Folds of Honor Foundation, and to help take out one of the worries of life – it’s pretty special.”
Gary Woodland is the only touring professional to carry the Folds of Honor logo on his bag. He teamed with Major Rooney to defeat Fowler’s team, 3 and 2.
“We play golf for a living; they fight battles for us,” Woodland says. “If there is anything I can do to give back, I want to do it. We can’t thank the men and women who protect us enough.”
In the end, the Flyboys defeated the Ground Pound to claim the third annual Patriot Cup. Corey Pavin led the victorious team and joked, “On a personal note, I’m just glad to have been a captain and won a trophy.”
In addition to the Cup, Pavin is presented with a folded American flag. He is overwhelmed by the honor.
When Pavin was the U.S. Ryder Cup captain in 2010, he asked Major Rooney to speak to the Americans prior to their matches in Wales. Rooney talked about accountability and individuals uniting for one cause. He talked about national pride. He told the story of Colonel Brock Bucklin and his son.
Jacob Bucklin was the first person awarded a Folds of Honor scholarship. He is now 10 and Rooney keeps in constant contact with him.
“Our mission is to leave no family behind in the field of battle,” Rooney reiterates. “We must remember the sacrifices that were made.”
At 1 p.m. CT, 'Taps' is played over the loudspeakers. A bell tolls 13 times, as it does every day at 1300 hours at the Folds of Honor Foundation, which stands on Patriot Golf Club grounds.
Thirteen rings. Thirteen folds of the flags.
Everyone stops. Men and women come to attention. Jets fly overhead. For a moment, everyone is aware.
“In all honesty,” Natashsa Mounsey would say later that evening, “I don’t think most Americans realize how lucky we are to live in a country with the freedom we possess.”
We should never forget.