For Jaimie Egge, May 26, 2004, began like any other day.

She was working at State Farm Insurance and living with her mother in Lincoln. Although she had just purchased a house with her husband, Matthew Henderson, that house was to sit vacant until Henderson returned from active duty in Iraq.

It wasn’t supposed to be a long wait. Henderson was a corporal in the Marine Corps, a combat engineer and a squad leader. He had given four years to the Marines, and in just a few months, Henderson would be released and could finally explore a future with his wife.

The two were junior high school sweethearts who were together for more than 10 years and married for nearly two. As the war became noticeably dire in Iraq, a worried Egge made her husband promise he would return after being deployed a second time. Even Henderson’s closest friends made her that promise -- they would return together.

But it was a promise they could not keep.

Egge was sitting on the couch at her mother’s house when the Marines arrived. In an instant, Egge knew what was happening. Her husband had died, killed with his two best friends by a roadside bomb.

“It’s an indescribable feeling,” she said. “I thought my life was over.”

She was left with an empty new house with no husband and no children to share it with.

“I wanted a piece of him to live for,” she said.

Egge’s pain is one Gold Star wives -- women who have lost their spouses during military service -- across the country can relate to.

For the first time at Memorial Stadium during Military Appreciation Day, 22 widows and 33 children were honored at the Husker football game Saturday as part of the Gold Star Honor Flight, an event recognizing the wives and children of Nebraska soldiers who have died in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The Gold Star Honor Flight was organized by Evonne and Bill Williams, who put together the Heartland Honor Flights that transported hundreds of World War II and Korean War veterans to see the memorials in Washington, D.C.

The event Saturday included a plane flight from Omaha to Lincoln, a memorial ceremony at the Pershing Military and Naval Science Building, a visit to the governor’s mansion, a tour of the University of Nebraska State Museum and a gold balloon launch at Memorial Stadium.

The flight was the first of its kind in the U.S., Bill Williams said. He said he hopes his organization, Patriotic Productions, can hold similar events for families in other states. Williams leads the “Remembering Our Fallen” exhibits, which display photographs of service men and women who have died as a result of their war wounds since Sept. 11, 2001.

The photographic exhibit at the Naval Science Building featured memorabilia of 87 Nebraska soldiers. Williams said three of the Gold Star families were flown in from California, Colorado and Texas to take part in the special day.

“We didn’t want to leave them out,” he said.

The memorial ceremony was the most difficult part of the day for the Gold Star families, Williams said. Each family was called forth to place a rose near their deceased loved one’s photo on the memorial wall.

Egge added a letter and photo from her wedding day to the wall beside her husband’s picture. The letter was addressed to Henderson and described all the memories she cherished from her time with him.

Standing beside Egge and holding her hand in support was her 7-year-old son, Brayden Egge. Although Brayden isn’t a Gold Star kid -- Egge married  Brayden’s father three years after Henderson’s death -- Egge said the event Saturday was just as meaningful for her son, because it taught him about sacrifice and helped him understand more about his mother’s past.

“Just because something happens, you don’t stop loving them,” she said. “Whether you get remarried or not, you still always love the person.”

The flight also led Egge to meet Kristen Swisher of Beatrice, whose husband’s grave is across from Henderson’s at Lincoln Memorial Cemetery.

The women quickly formed a bond, because they were in a similar situation. Swisher’s son, 6-year-old Evan Nolte, also isn’t a Gold Star child.

Swisher’s husband, U.S. Army SSG Christopher Swisher, died in October 2003. She said her husband’s unit was on patrol in Iraq when the soldiers were suddenly flagged down by civilians claiming women and children needed help nearby. When the men went to give aid, they were ambushed.

Swisher said she remembers the soldiers ringing her doorbell at 6 a.m. And just like Egge, the moment she saw them at her door, she knew her husband was gone.

“It’s not something anyone should have to go through,” she said.

Julia Yllescas, 14, of Aurora, was 7 years old when her father, U.S. Army Capt. Rob Yllescas, was injured in a targeted bombing in Afghanistan. He lost both his legs and suffered a traumatic brain injury.

He was flown to a hospital in Germany and then taken to Maryland. A month later, he died from a stroke, but not before getting the chance to say goodbye to Julia and her mother, Dena Yllescas-Johnston, who also had a 10-month-old daughter, Eva, too young to make the trip from their home in Nebraska.

Julia’s father couldn’t speak, but he had regained consciousness long enough to see them, Yllescas-Johnston said.

“Julia was very close to him,” she said.

To this day, Yllescas-Johnston said Julia is uncomfortable talking about her father’s death. But that doesn’t mean she didn’t enjoy the opportunity to honor him.

She said her favorite part of the day was attending the Husker game.

“It’s (Memorial Stadium) pretty awesome,” Julia said.

Julia’s mother laughed.

“That’s saying a lot from her," Yllescas-Johnston said, "considering she’s not a football fan.”

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Reach the writer at cdunn@journalstar.com or 402-473-2655. 

Follow him on Twitter @ConorWDunn.


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