It’s been nearly four years now since Army medic Spc. Shannon Chihuahua was killed during an insurgent attack in the Wataphur District of Afghanistan.
Thursday at Richmond Hill United Methodist Church, Chihuahua’s three nephews were given a reminder of their uncle: three bears made out of his uniforms.
“It’s something tangible they can hold and snuggle up to and remember their uncle by,” said Jennifer Frausto, Chihuahua’s sister and mother of the three boys, the oldest 6, the youngest an infant. “Because they can’t walk up to him and give him a hug.”
The bears are the creation of Lisa Freeman, who in 2010 founded The Matthew Freeman Project in honor of her son, a Marine captain killed in action in Afghanistan in August 2009.
She made a similar bear out of her son’s uniforms for her grandson and intends to make them out of the uniforms of the fallen service members of any Gold Star family who asks for one.
Freeman calls the bears “Matthew Bears” in part because of her son but also because of “the Apostle Matthew, who taught us … ‘blessed are those who mourn for they shall become comforted,’” she told a group of children attending day care at RHUMC before presenting the bears to Bruce, Colton and Levi Shannon Frausto.
The Matthew Bears, Freeman believes, will help the Frausto children and, as more are made for other Gold Star families, others in the same situation cope with the pain.
And it helps her deal with her own loss, she said. She finds it therapeutic.
“Working with this … it’s very much therapy,” Freeman said. “I can just feel Matt smiling. I know he’d be happy that this is something we were doing for children.”
A Marine and a medic
Freeman, 29, grew up in Richmond Hill and went to church at RHUMC, which has a playground out back that also bears his name.
He played tennis at Richmond Hill High School and was a Naval Academy graduate, USMC pilot and had been married less than a month when he was killed while clearing a building under heavy fire.
Freeman volunteered for ground duty because the Marines needed more boots on the ground.
He was posthumously awarded the Bronze Star with the “Combat V” for valor, and his story is well known in Richmond Hill and beyond.
Chihuahua’s story is not so well known.
From Thomasville, he was a 25-year-old soldier serving with the 101st Airborne’s 1st Battalion, 327th Infantry Regiment.
He was married and had two children and had been in the Army for two years.
His sister said he talked of becoming a physician’s assistant.
But instead, when Chihuahua’s unit was attacked on Nov. 12, 2012, by insurgents using rocket propelled grenades and small arms, he scrambled from soldier to soldier tending to wounded until he was killed, the Associated Press reported in its coverage of a Feb. 7 ceremony at Fort Campbell, Ky., in which the combat medic was awarded the Silver Star.
More than 100 soldiers attended, the AP reported. Frausto was there.
“To see all the soldiers who came and traveled long distances to be there for that honor, most of those men are alive because of my brother and his selfless act of service,” she said.
Frausto, who lives with her husband, Riley, and children in Richmond Hill, said knowing her brother’s heroism is remembered is special.
So are the Matthew Bears, she said.
“It’s amazing that Lisa and the United Methodist Church are doing this for us and for other families,” Frausto said. “Because the bears are made out of the uniforms my brother wore while he served, even the uniforms he had when he was in Afghanistan … as they get older, they will treasure them and realize the hero that their uncle is.
“It’ll be more than just a story, it’ll be more real life to them.”
The Matthew Freeman Project began with Pens and Paper for Peace to honor Freeman’s wish that school supplies be gotten to children in Afghanistan.
Tens of thousands of donated school supplies made their way to the kids in that country through the U.S. military as a result.
As U.S. involvement in that country begins to wind down, Lisa Freeman wanted to find another way to help other families who suffered the loss of a loved one in war.
And when a cousin told her of a bear made for his daughter after the death of his wife, the idea of “Matthew Bears” was born.
“We hope to be able to comfort many other Gold Star family members, to offer scholarships to the siblings of the fallen and by making Matthew Bears for them,” she told those who assembled at RHUMC for the launching of the project.
She’s not doing it alone. Freeman is getting help from friends and volunteers at RHUMC, her church and “the church Matt grew up in,” she said.
The bears will be made and sent to families free of charge, and Gold Star families can find out more information by going to http://www.freemanproject.org/.
Donations to help cover the cost of postage are always welcome, Freeman added.
At Thursday’s launching, she explained what Gold Star families were to children on hand to also celebrate Dr. Suess’ birthday.
“A Gold Star family member is someone who is a brother, sister, husband, wife, son or daughter, mother or father and they are related to these very special heroes who have served to keep America free,” Freeman said.
That definition seems to fit both Freeman and Chihuahua, who are among 2,116 American service members killed in Afghanistan as part of Operation Enduring Freedom.
It’s a war that has taken its toll in more ways than one.
Frausto was polite and patient with media at Thursday’s launching, but reminders of her brother’s sacrifice are painful, she said.
“It’s almost a slap in your face reminder of what happened,” she said. “So that can be hard, and talking about it is hard … but it makes you feel good to know that he’s remembered. That he didn’t die without a cause (in vain), that he’s remembered.”
And by accounts on sites dedicated to fallen servicemen and women, like Freeman, her brother was well worth remembering.
“He was a very giving person,” she said. “He was fun, he loved his family and he made people laugh. He always thought of others before himself.”