The last time Erin Thomas saw his mother, he told her he was never coming home.
"Lie to someone who doesn't know you," Denise Lange remembers telling him.
The 20-year-old was deploying to Afghanistan in the next few months, but in a twist of fate, he never made it out of the states.
Thomas died in a car crash, a devastating event Lange said forced her to take her life in a new direction. She raises money for veterans' charities and has found that she's able to give support to other military families.
"We didn't get better, but we got more focused," Lange said.
Lange joined others in Lincoln on Saturday, focusing on the faces of soldiers at the Remember our Fallen display outside Pinnacle Bank Arena. In each photo, she saw the families that the soldiers left behind.
"I think about the holes they left," she said. "And I pray for those families every day that they're strong enough to come out and see this and get healing from it."
The exhibit featured photo towers of military members killed since Sept. 11, 2001. The traveling display drew visits from numerous veterans and Gold Star families Saturday morning.
Spending time with other Gold Star mothers gives Lange hope.
- "You know that they feel a similar pain, but they're moving forward," she said. "And it gives you strength to move forward."
Lange's father and brother were both in the military. It seemed only natural for Thomas to grow up dreaming of the day he'd have the chance to serve.
Fresh out of high school, he enlisted in the Army. He married after completing basic training.
He was the kind of guy who loved to laugh and make others laugh, his mom said. She remembers running down the streets of their small town, Augusta, Kansas, and calling him "Snookums" to embarrass him in front of his friends.
He was the kind of guy who would stop to change a stranger's tire, or help pull their car out of the ditch.
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"Whether they could do it or not, he felt it was his job to do it for them," Lange said.
His daughter was born while he was in high school, and she was the light of his life. He loved his wife, although his determination to join the Army strained their marriage.
It was hard, too, for Lange, who felt like she was finally getting to know her son. At 20, their relationship was changing. Thomas would call her just to chat or ask for advice.
She remembers waiting by the phone on June 19, 2009.
It was her birthday, and she was looking forward to Thomas' call. When he didn't call, she wasn't worried, because sometimes Thomas would intentionally not call, just to joke with Lange.
Instead of a call, Thomas' mother-in-law showed up in the middle of Lange's work day. She refused to believe that he had died.
"I saw a whole future for his family, and for me," she said.
Since Thomas was not killed in the line of duty, she said that he's sometimes forgotten.
"We glorify those killed in action so much, there are so many that fall through the cracks," she said.
Even though Thomas died eight years ago, Lange doesn't spend a day without him. Exactly three years after his burial, she had a portrait of him tattooed on her forearm. And when she bought a motorcycle so she could help ensure veterans' funeral services go uninterrupted, she had a photo of Thomas embedded into the frame.
She's raised nearly $14,000 for different organizations, including the Operation Freedom Memorial in Kansas, by selling “In Honor of Fallen Soldiers” medallions.
Not a day goes by that Lange doesn't miss her son, but she feels grateful to have a close relationship with her granddaughter and her daughter-in-law. She's lucky, she said, to have so much support from other military families.
"Before, it was just about getting through my day and worrying about my family," she said. "And now I have a much bigger family."