Ovalo, Texas (KTAB/KRBC) – Losing a beloved servicemember is among the most difficult of losses in the world, but what about for the parents of those fallen soldiers? There’s a saying that parents aren’t meant to bury their babies, and when they do, what happens next? One Big Country couple created a nonprofit dedicated to not only their daughter, but to all loved ones of servicemembers who’ve passed.
Donna and Craig Kleman said they always knew their daughter had a love for the military. They told KTAB/KRBC their little Jennifer showed interest in the service from a very young age, and had a desire to follow in her fathers footsteps.
“When everybody else was checking out books on different things that kids would love, she was checking out military books,” Donna recalled of her daughter.
“When she joined ROTC (Reserve Officers’ Training Corps) it became evident. Her and I were real close. She was Army, I was Air Force, and we had our fun,” Jennifer’s father, Craig said. “But in the end, she knew as I knew that it doesn’t matter what service you were in, we were all brothers and sisters in the Armed Forces.”
Second Warrant Officer Jennifer C. Hunter would serve three tours of duty in Iraq, where she would be exposed to toxins that would greatly affect her health.
“Because of the burn pits that were there, she came down with a brain tumor,” Craig explained.
On June 27, 2015 Jennifer’s parents, sons and other loved ones said goodbye to her for a final time.
“I told her I didn’t know, and she looked me right in the eye. She goes, ‘Mom, don’t be angry with the Army… That was my oath and my duty… I’ve had a good life, good parents, good family,'” Donna spoke. “I had had such an admiration and respect that she could have that outlook and not be bitter.”
Faced with a reality they hoped never to see, the Klemans looked to their daughter’s example and chose to carry on for the good of others – founding the nonprofit Surviving Families of Fallen Warriors.
“We could have died of a broken heart, or we could do something to carry on her legacy,” said Donna strongly.
The couple now offers support and community to families and loved ones who’ve lost people they care for in service to the military. Bringing them all together through an Annual CW2 Jennifer C. Hunter “Running Free” memorial 5K. The proceeds of which go to support their cause.
The Klemans also offer a place where families can find solitude and reflection at the pavilion and chapel built on their land in Ovalo, in Jennifer’s memory.
“Losing a child is hard. But when you lose a child who sacrificed themselves for the greater good of our country, that speaks a whole lot,” Craig reasoned.
Lining their fence, you’ll find memorial signs for service members of families honored in the past. Among them, the son of Carmene Balint.
“I am a gold star mother to PFC Paul Balint Jr., who was mortally wounded December the 15th, 2006… It’s difficult to imagine that I’ve gone on 16 years without him. It feels like he’s still here, right by my side,” said Balint.
For Balint, the ability to honor her son and the loved ones of others means everything – coming together to have dinner and talk about life without the ones they miss so dearly.
“Because they are the closest to us in understanding that hole in our hearts that we have, and in some form or fashion, they help us to fill that by their very presence,” Donna added.