Apprehension washed over Gale Renteria. Over a decade had passed since her late husband, Army Corporal Jeremiah Johnson, died from injuries sustained in a rollover accident in Iraq. She wondered if her circumstances — a military widow who has since remarried — qualified for financial support from the Gary Sinise Foundation.
The internal debate waged as the weight of making ends meet fell squarely on her shoulders. At the latter end of August, her husband, Ruben, lost his carpentry job. For her part, Ms. Renteria wasn’t faring much better as work slowed to a trickle, her hours cut, a casualty of COVID-19. It was already a difficult year with several family deaths coinciding with brushes of potential exposure to COVID-19.
While juggling car and rent payments, and household expenses, Ms. Renteria unwittingly fell behind on the monthly loan payments. “How am I going to make this work?” the mother of two teenagers asked herself. She turned to her faith and said a prayer asking God for help.
New Year’s Eve was days away when Ms. Renteria (then Johnson) received a phone call from the Army on December 26, 2006, informing her that her husband, Jeremiah, had been seriously hurt in Iraq. He was flown to Germany in critical condition.
Some six years had passed since the longtime sweethearts married in 2001. They had a crush on each other as far back as elementary school — Gale going to his Little League games, Jeremiah attending her ballet performances. Innocently playing tag in between Sunday school lessons was their version of flirting. They were inseparable as teenagers, going to high school dances together and spending weekends camping amongst Washington state’s canopy of evergreens. At 16, Ms. Renteria said they knew they were in love.
Jeremiah enlisted in the Army in 2003, driven in part by the terrorist attacks on 9/11 and his JROTC experience at Prairie High School near Vancouver, Washington. In October 2006, Jeremiah shipped out to Iraq for a 12-month deployment. Two months in, the Humvee he was driving rolled over into a canal, submerging him and his squad members underwater. Several died in the accident.
The cause of the accident remains undetermined. Said Ms. Renteria, “For me, there will always be a part that is crippled because I don’t know what he was going through. I’ll never know exactly what happened.” She doesn’t know when or if ever, she’ll find closure.
“There is nothing that can take the place of the one you lost — nothing and no one. You have to move on knowing that, and you have to go on living.”
When Ms. Renteria thinks back on the last conversation she had with Jeremiah before the accident, she remembers telling him about the kids and their latest antics. She remembers telling him to run if he was ever in danger. And she remembers subtly telling him, for the naturally brave man that he was, not to “be the hero.”
Years after Jeremiah’s death, Ms. Renteria and her daughter Rya, now 16, and son, Isaiah, now 18, got involved with the Gary Sinise Foundation, attending Snowball Express in Texas and Walt Disney World in Florida. "I loved seeing my kids honored for their sacrifice,” she said.
In early September this year, there was no more debating the merits of her family’s needs. More than of month of income was lost between her and her husband — government assistance wasn’t going to cut it. She applied to the Gary Sinise Foundation for financial support, her expectations tempered at the outset.
Weeks passed by the time she received a phone call from the foundation informing her that the entirety of the bank loan and several other bills, including her upcoming rent, would be paid in full. “It was amazing to be cared about and thought about at almost 13 years [after Jeremiah’s death],” Ms. Renteria explained.
“You think as the years go by that you’ll lose people — that you’ll be kicked to the side — but I never felt that from Snowball and from Gary. I never felt forgotten.”
In recent weeks Ms. Renteria started a new job as an assistant property manager. Unlike her previous position leasing apartments, she’ll be paid substantially more with the flexibility of working remotely. The change in circumstances, she said, has brought peace and hope, an answer to her prayer.