By Hannah Dreier
Contra Costa Times
DISCOVERY BAY | The way Kevin Graves sees it, he’s walking in his son’s footsteps.
Four years after his only child was killed while serving in Iraq, the 53-year-old has turned honoring his son’s sacrifice into a full-time job. He speaks at rallies, attends memorials, advocates for special license plates for parents of fallen soldiers and crisscrosses the country visiting “surrogate children” who served with his son in Iraq. Most recently, Graves joined the State Military Reserve out of a sense of obligation to finish what Joey started.
Sitting in a townhouse brimming with camouflage rucksacks, American flags and framed military metals, Graves proudly points out that he was inducted as a specialist, his 21-year-old son’s rank when he died, and will wear the same uniform. “I feel that he wasn’t able to fulfill his term in the military, and I’m carrying his sword for him,” Graves said. “I would give anything to be boots on the ground where my son gave his life in Iraq.”
Too old to qualify for the regular Army, Graves joined the Military Reserve, where he will work with national guardsmen as a chaplain’s assistant one weekend a month and one week a year. He hopes it will help him stay connected with his son, whom he raised as a single father.
“For nine years, we did everything together,” Graves said. “If there was a dinner or something, Joey was my date.”
Graves led Joey’s youth group and coached his sports teams. But when the 17-year-old enlisted, Graves had to accept a more limited role in his son’s world. For security reasons, Joey could say little of what he did in Iraq.
“It wasn’t until he gave his life that my life became completely intertwined with the military,” Graves said.
A leather-bound photo album on Graves’ coffee table tells Joey’s story. In the snapshots, a smiling blond child morphs into a more serious, dark-haired teenager. Sun-drenched images of a waving uniformed soldier abruptly lead to funeral scenes. The latter half of the album finds the elder Graves at memorials, military parades and pro-troop rallies on the National Mall in Washington. After Joey’s death, Graves helped lead a campaign for a special license plate for families who have lost loved ones in military conflicts. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger authorized the creation of the Gold Star Family License Plate in 2008.
Despite his near-frenetic activity — Graves is also president of Discovery Bay’s governing board — he often says he thinks his work on Earth is finished.
“I just want to see my son again,” he said.
Maintaining a strong relationship with a handful of soldiers who served alongside his son helps him cope.
Sgt. Shannon Garcia first met Graves at Joey’s funeral.
“We met because of terrible circumstances,” she said, “but it was a miracle in disguise. He took me under his wing, and I took him under mine.”
Her children now call him grandfather.
Graves was a guest at Garcia’s wedding in Texas, and flew to South Carolina to surprise her at her graduation from drill sergeant school. Graves said being with Joey’s comrades helps him identify with a part of his son he never knew.
“He knew Joey as a son,” Garcia said, “but he never knew Specialist Graves.”
Graves recently completed the rigorous physical training required of reservists, who may be called upon to respond to wildfires and other natural disasters.
His service role will be to distribute literature, chat with soldiers and arrange for them to speak with their chaplains. Garcia said she believes that Graves’ loss will help him empathize with soldiers and speak their language, and his chaplain agrees.
“He has a real heart for soldiers,” said Chaplain Marc Unger, of the 1-143 Field Artillery Battalion of the California National Guard. “That is clear, and that is what I need in an assistant.”
Graves moves constantly when he talks, sitting, standing, fiddling with a black memorial bracelet, sipping an energy drink, letting his cat — Joey — in and out, but a weariness pools beneath the constant activity.
He said he cries for his son every day. Sometimes he feels that Joey is gone forever, but at other moments he expects his son to walk through the door. For now, Graves is trying his best to honor his son’s life and come to terms with his death.
“I don’t know what’s up in heaven,” Graves said, “but if Joey is watching, I’m firmly certain that he would be proud of everything I’m doing.”
Contact Hannah Dreier at 925-779-7174.