JOINT BASE SAN ANTONIO, Texas, –
April 5 is Gold Star Spouses Day, a day which honors spouses who lost their military significant other in the line of duty or because of their military service, according to Joint Base San Antonio Survivor Outreach Services. Kathryn Hopkins is one such Gold Star Spouse who calls San Antonio home.
Kathryn remembers her husband, Sgt. Ryan J. Hopkins, for his bravery and other great character traits.
“The best thing about Ryan was his personality,” she said. “He was outgoing, charismatic and optimistic,” she said. “He had a joking and humorous manner much of the time and knew to be serious when he had to be.”
The couple met at Fort Carson, Colorado, when the battery in Kathryn’s first car died in the middle of winter. After Ryan, a motor transportation operator in the U.S. Army, jump-started her car, they became friends and the friendship blossomed into romance.
Everything was rosy for the couple until Oct. 4, 2007.
“My journey into hardship and grief began when my husband was injured in a refueling accident while we were deployed to the Green Zone in Baghdad, Iraq,” Kathryn, who was also an active-duty military member, said. “We were dual military, originally from the same unit, same platoon, and with the same occupation, and were -- in a sense -- the unit couple.”
She recalled the joy of sharing a chew, or portable room, and not needing a battle buddy to go places on the forward-operating base, because she and her husband could walk around the base together. When their schedules overlapped, they would eat and go for runs around the base.
“Deployment was a difficult experience in itself, but it was made easier because I had Ryan so close to share my experiences,” she said.
But then, the accident happened.
It had been a normal day, and Kathryn was planning to have dinner with Ryan. Suddenly, there was a loud pounding on her door. It was Ryan’s squad leader, in a panicked state.
“He said to me, ‘I need you to come with me. There's been an accident, and Ryan's been hurt!’” she recalled. “I immediately grabbed my weapon, my keys, and I don't even think I locked the door.”
There had been an explosion of fuel while Ryan was refueling the MRAP, or mine-resistant ambush-protected vehicle, which caused second- and third-degree burns over 55% of his body, from his thighs to his head.
When Kathryn arrived at the scene, Ryan was on the ground wrapped in a medical fire blanket. Other soldiers were clustered, some crying. One of the medics handed Kathryn a hand-pumped air bag and told her to keep him talking. She did. It was the first of many days of being by Ryan’s side during his recovery.
She flew with him to Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany, and then to Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio. A devoted wife and battle buddy, she helped him through the stages of burn care.
“Ryan was in a medically-induced coma for months, and when he awoke, he had to learn to breathe, talk, stand, and eventually walk, again,” she said. “I witnessed the highs and lows of his injury, and through it all, it never fully entered my mind that I could lose him.”
But on Jan. 8, 2010, Kathryn got a call at 7:11 in the morning. After a routine reconstructive surgery and plans for Ryan’s discharge, the nurses found Ryan inexplicably unresponsive. The medical team tried to get air into his lungs and were successful, but they were never able to restart his heart.
By the time Kathryn arrived at the hospital, he was gone.
When she was finally allowed into his room, she had one final moment with him.
“He looked like he was sleeping,” she said. “He, of course, still had all his bandages on his face from the surgery. I proceeded to talk to him like normal and held his hand. I apologized for not calling to check in on him and that he had passed. I explained that I tried to get there as fast as I could.”
Kathryn had Ryan buried in his hometown of Livermore, California, near his parents’ house. She also designed his headstone.
Since then, Kathryn has found solace by participating in the groups and events sponsored by Joint Base San Antonio’s Survivor Outreach Services. She has also used art and community bonding to process her pain.
“Grief and hardship are a journey that everyone experiences at some point in their life,” she said. “As a widow, it is a loss of a part of your heart, your stability, an anchor, a guide, and the person you’re most intimately connected to.”
Throughout it all, Kathryn said she feels she has gained much strength, which has helped her carry on and keep everything in perspective. Now, she looks forward to helping others build these same skills as they cope with their own personal losses.
Learn more about JBSA Survivor Outreach Services at www.facebook.com/FortSamSOS.