While many Americans were hunting Easter eggs or enjoying holiday brunch, Inge Colton was getting the most devastating news of her life.
On Easter Sunday, April 11, 2004, she and her 11-year-old stepson, Lance, learned that her husband, Chief Warrant Officer 2 Lawrence “Shane” Colton, an attack helicopter pilot assigned to the Army’s 1st Battalion, 227th Aviation Regiment, 1st Cavalry Division at Fort Hood, Texas, was shot down in Baghdad, Iraq, when his helicopter responded to a fuel convoy under attack.
Inge’s life changed from happy military wife to shattered military widow in a matter of seconds.
Thousands of widows like Inge are honored every year during Gold Star Spouses Day, April 5, to remember spouses whose loved ones died while serving in the United States Armed Forces. The Gold Star Spouses and Survivor Outreach Services helped Inge put her life back together after Shane’s death.
“I’ve gotten to know several Gold Star Spouses in the States, and I’ve gotten really close with two of them and visited both of them last year,” she said. “I am a really good friend with a Gold Star Mother here in the (Kaiserslautern) area as well.”
Healing from the intense grief took time as she struggled day by day to take care of herself and Lance.
“It was very difficult. For about four years, I couldn’t even look at a picture of Shane without crying,” Inge remembered. “We visited family before he deployed, and Shane’s stepdad took some photos of him at a restaurant. Shane always had a smile on his face. Later, I received an envelope with some pictures of Shane in it. I remembered opening the envelope and seeing his smiling face and I just broke down. Lance was wondering why I was crying, because seeing pictures of his dad should have made me happy. But how do you explain to an 11 year old that it hurt to see photos of his dad?”
Years later in 2013, she experienced another tragedy — Lance died. After the untimely death of her stepson, Inge decided to move back to Kaiserslautern — a place she remembered fondly.
“My father was in the military, and I was born in Kaiserslautern,” said the 86th Force Support Squadron duty manager on Vogelweh. “I pretty much grew up here and at Fort Knox, Ky. My parents are retired here.”
Working on Vogelweh brought back good memories of childhood and meeting Shane, who was stationed at Landstuhl in 1993.
“We met at the Vogelweh furniture store,” Inge said. She and Shane were shopping with friends, but stayed in the car. “Later, we decided to go inside the furniture store. He approached me while I was looking at a bouquet of dried flowers and asked me if I wanted to go dancing with him.”
A year and a half later on May 5, 1995, she and Shane were married at the Landstuhl Chapel, and their military journey began and brought them to places like Fort Rucker, Alabama; Korea; and Fort Hood, Texas.
While at Fort Hood, Shane deployed in February 2003 before the Iraq invasion began. Two pilots from his unit, Chief Warrant Officers David S. Williams and Ronald D. Young Jr., were held prisoner after their helicopter crashed near Karbala, Iraq. They and five other Soldiers who were assigned to 507th Maintenance Company from Fort Bliss, Texas, were later released and flown home April 20, 2003.
Shane was one of the officers who escorted the two prisoners of war out of Iraq to Landstuhl, Germany. Later, the POWs were debriefed at a stateside location before they were flown back to Fort Hood, Inge said.
“After a lot of their equipment and aircraft were destroyed in Iraq, the 4th (Infantry Division) deployed to replace them. The whole unit came home, and then Shane deployed again in February 2004,” she said.
Less than two months later, Shane was gone.
A couple of weeks after her husband died, Inge received a heart-felt email from the wife of the officer in charge of the fuel convoy that her husband helped save.
The email written by Anne Searcy said, “I want to express my sympathy for the loss of Warrant Officers Wesley C. Fortenberry and Lawrence S. Colton, the pilots of the Apache helicopter that was shot down on 11 April. They will not be forgotten in this household. They are heroes in my household and in my heart. When they were shot down, they were helping a fuel convoy who had been ambushed by almost 200 Iraqis. The officer in charge that day was my husband, Lt. Searcy. It is one thing to hear about stuff in the news, but when you realize someone died saving your husband’s life, that is a feeling I cannot quite express in words. I cannot express enough, the heroism of the two officers to know they died saving my husband and his Soldiers. It is because of these men that I did not have military personnel knocking at my door that Easter weekend. For this I am forever grateful and at the families’ mercy. I believe all Soldiers are heroes, but when you are in my shoes, it gives a hero a whole different meaning. As for the families of the pilots, along with my husband and his crew, it will be an Easter we will never forget.”
Easter is a time Inge never forgets as well. Although painful, she is grateful for the support she’s received since moving back to Kaiserslautern.
“The Survivor Outreach Services is great here. I’m so thankful that the (U.S. Army Garrison Rheinland-Pfalz) accepts us as their Gold Star Spouses even though my husband did not serve in their unit. They invite us to events and make us feel like we are still a part of the military community,” Inge said.
She didn’t always feel like that.
After her husband died, Colton was told she was no longer part of the military community.
“My husband died defending his country, and I was told I was no longer part of the military community. There are a lot of hurtful things you can say to a widow, but to tell her that she is no longer part of the military community and treat her that way,” Inge recalled shaking her head. “That was the only life I had known — I was an Army wife. I was a part of the Family Readiness Group and baked the cookies and cupcakes for unit fundraisers. I was the one raising our son when he was away on deployments. So being told that I’m not a part of the military community because Shane was gone — that hurt. I feel more welcomed here in a unit my husband was not a part of than at Fort Hood. They are embracing me here. They invite me to several functions. I am so honored that they would remember Shane and invite me.”
Shane will always be remembered as a hero, and in the eyes of the Gold Star Spouses and our Rheinland-Pfalz community — Inge is too.