AT 7:00 on the night of July 25, 2006, my wife Leianne answered a knock on the door of our Discovery Bay home. When she saw two military officers standing on the porch, she slammed the door in their faces. She knew that there was only one reason for two military officers to knock on the door of the family of a military person on active duty. She called out to me, “You have to come down, Kevin!” One of the men, an army officer, told me that my only child, Spc. Joey Graves, had been killed serving his country in Iraq. Joey later received a purple heart and a bronze star posthumously. I got a folded flag.
When Joey died, my life effectively came to an end also. It was almost like a difficult rebirth as I set out on a search for reasons why I should continue to live and began a quest to find resources that would help me do so.
Through recovery from the loss, I learned the importance of finding honor in Joey’s sacrifice and realized that people in my situation must either find healthy paths to grieving or they will die — perhaps not physically but their spirit will certainly die. I am moved by Billy Ray Cyrus’ song:
All Gave Some, Some Gave All Some stood through for the red, white and blue And some had to fall And if you ever think of me Think of all your liberties and recall Some Gave All
I also discovered that a major source of my healing derived from helping other people heal. In 2007 I got the idea of starting a foundation to work with other families who had suffered a similar loss. In 2009 Some Gave All — The Joey Graves Foundation became a 501(c)(3) tax-free non-profit and we began to raise funds. During our first year we offered scholarships to eight deserving young people to attend a boot camp at the Quantico Marine Base, where they underwent a rigorous program of discipline and leadership skills. One of those first graduates ended up joining the military.
Besides individual contributors, we raise funds through an annual Sporting Clay Shoot at Bird’s Landing near Travis Air Force Base. Two months ago we sponsored our 12th Annual Joey Graves Memorial Golf Tournament. Our efforts raise $90,000 a year. We use the funds to provide a number of venues to assist families in finding healthy paths of grieving. Every year we also acknowledge 25 fallen heroes and their families by hanging hero tribute banners along Discovery Bay Boulevard.
Joey’s death marked a major turning point in my life that at times had followed a winding pathway. Much of my early childhood was spent in the choir loft of Hayward’s First Presbyterian Church, where my father was music director. I faithfully attended Sunday School, became a leader in the church’s youth group, later a member of the college group, and then as an adult was ordained as an elder and deacon.
Life subsequently took a downward course that led through alcoholism and failed marriages. However, a magnificent event took place December 28, 1984, when my son Joseph “Joey” was born. His mom and I divorced when he was three, though we remained friends following our separation and worked together to give Joey the best childhood possible. When Joey was nine years old, his mom released custody and Joey came to live with me full-time. I became “clean and sober” in April 1994 and Joey came to me that June, as a gift from God. It was an awesome change for me; having Joey live with me was like a dream come true!
Joey’s presence probably played an important role in my continuing sobriety. He knew how important it was that I not fall back into drinking. I clearly remember when he was 13 years old, Joey came into my room and asked, “How come you don’t drink?”
“Why are you asking the question?” He answered, “Because if you start drinking again, I’m leaving.”
I don’t know how strong I would have remained if Joey hadn’t been part of my life, but falling back into drinking and losing him would have been simply impossible. Joey had become my purpose in life; he was my reason to live. When he played basketball, I became coach of his team. When he would receive some honor or commendation, I was always present for the ceremony. !e two of us spent happy hours and days together on a number of road trips. For a decade the two us seemed to be in a symbiotic relationship. I was teaching him to be a good man; he was teaching me to be a good father. I watched with love and admiration as Joey grew into a young man with an amazing breadth of wisdom and character.
Following his graduation from Liberty with a 3.8 GPA, Joey told me he wanted to go into the Army. I was surprised that he wasn’t planning to go to college. “You must have been speaking to a recruiter,” I said. “Yes, I was,” he answered.
Joey was still 17 and needed parental consent before signing any contract, including an enlistment form. I didn’t want Joey making such a decision without careful deliberation, so I told him that I wanted the recruiter to visit in our home that night. After supper, SSG David Bryant, who I learned was a hometown recruiter, came calling. He reviewed with me the information he had given to Joey and the promises he had made to him. It turned out that Joey never intended to be a career soldier. His goal in life was to be an FBI field agent. Joey made the rational decision that by joining the army, becoming an Army MP, getting a tour of duty under his belt — especially if it involved even a marginal combat station — would be a compelling entry on his résumé.
"I'm still extremely proud of my son's intelligent, courageous, and patriotic dreams. There is no wisdom to be found in hindsight."
I was finally satisfied that Joey knew what he was doing and was committed to following the path he had chosen, so we signed the papers that night. Because of his age, Joey became part of the Delayed Entry Program. Even though his enlistment automatically began when he signed those papers, Joey didn’t leave for boot camp at Ft. Leonard Wood in Missouri until November 2003. !at was 15 years ago this month.
Joey graduated from boot camp at the top of his class. As a reward, he was given the opportunity to go to Ft. Benning, Georgia, and then to qualify with !e United States Army Airborne School’s basic paratrooper training course. Joey was a little afraid of heights. It had taken a lot of willpower for him to ski down a mountainside with me, so I was amazed that he found sufficient courage to jump out of planes. He then received a monthly jumpers bonus even though he never jumped again nor expected to do so.
Following an uneventful year in Korea, Joey was assigned to Fort Hood, Texas. Before leaving for his new assignment, he spent a month with me and for the first time met Leianne, the woman who was destined to become his new stepmom. At the end of that leave, Joey and I spent two unforgettable days together as I drove him to Texas on what would become our final road trip. We had a great time of serious discussion and laughter while consuming the bucket of chocolate chip cookies that Leianne had made to fortify us on the trip.
Joey spent his time at Ft. Hood training for his next deployment, which would be in Iraq. We kept in touch through frequent phone calls. By the end of the time, he said that he was tired of training and impatient to go to Iraq and get to work.
At that time marriage was in the wind for both of us. Joey had been dating Cori Maningas since they were in Excelsior Middle School together. Cori had lived in Houston with her sister until she and Joey could get a courthouse marriage. During Joey’s time at Ft. Hood, I proposed to Leianne and told her that I wanted Joey to be my best man. Deployment was approaching, so Leianne had to confront the challenge of putting the wedding together in 12 weeks. On October 8, 2005, we were married in a beautiful ceremony at Byron’s Taylor Historic Ranch with Joey standing by my side, providing his friends and family members with beautiful memories of the last time they would see him.
I flew back to Ft. Hood with Joey and spent some time with him, along with Cori and some of his buddies who were being deployed with him. Cori and I remained at his side until he got on the bus that would take him across the tarmac to the waiting plane. Joey and I continued to keep in touch through emails and texts. A nice bonus of Joey’s service as an MP was that he had access to the military’s satellite phone system, so during the subsequent months the two of us engaged in a number of conversations.
Joey would always assure me that he was stationed in one of the safest places in Iraq. He didn’t tell me that he wasn’t able to stay fulltime in that safe place because on July 25, 2006, he was on an escort mission and ran into trouble. Even though the attack was later described as a “well-orchestrated ambush,” only one American serviceman in the seven-vehicle unit became a casualty. Unfortunately, Spc. Joey Graves was killed instantly.
Life had turned upside down. I needed to do something to keep the tattered fragments of my life together. I met the father of Cpl. Michael Anderson, Jr., a Marine who had been killed two years earlier in the epic battle for Fallujah. !e two of us began to focus our passion and grief in an effort to convince state legislators to pass a bill authorizing a gold star license plate. We made more than two dozen trips to Sacramento until Governor Schwarzenegger signed the bill, which was one of his final acts before leaving office. In a formal ceremony, he handed Michael, Sr. plate 001 and gave me 002. I currently have them on all three of my cars and my motorcycle.
People talk to me sometimes about the choice I made with the recruiter that fateful night. !ey ask me if I could do it again would I make a different choice? It’s a dumb question. Without having a crystal ball, how could I ever have done anything differently? I’m still extremely proud of my son’s intelligent, courageous, and patriotic dreams. !ere is no wisdom to be found in hindsight.
Regret, of course, is a permanent quality in my life, but I have no remorse whatsoever because I believe our intentions were pure and because I believe in God. He really does “bring good things out of bad things,” as they say. Coping with the tragedy has made me a stronger and deeper person — more sensitive to the needs and the pain of people around me. And of course, Joey’s death led to the Joey Graves Foundation that has touched the lives of more gold star parents than I can count. It has inspired many of us to honor our American heroes and serve their families as a commitment and a passion.
Not everyone survives the loss of a child, so I believe that our foundation is saving people’s lives, as well as my own. Healing comes from helping other people. !e Joey Graves Foundation also reinforces the message that Freedom is Everyone’s Job as a ringing call to service and an important reminder that Joey and other fallen heroes did not die in vain.
Photos by Ron Essex