Ten decorative angels — the kind that crown a Christmas tree — sit on a ledge in the Reedley home of Susan Lusk. There is one angel for every year since her son, Army Capt. Joe Fenton Lusk II, died in the crash of his military helicopter in Kuwait.
“I want to have an angel for him,” Lusk told me recently. “Maybe it’s because I see him as my angel.”
Joe Lusk was 25 — a freshly minted captain and graduate of West Point — when his Apache helicopter went down during a training exercise on Jan. 21, 2005.
Joe Lusk had deployed to the Middle East to join American forces fighting in Iraq.
Susan Lusk plunged into a suffocating grief when her third-born son was killed.
The grief remains — though it no longer washes over her like a churning wave. Instead, it coexists with the knowledge that other veterans and their families have received help in the name of her “Joey.”
The assistance comes from the Capt. Joe F. Lusk II Memorial Foundation. In a bittersweet way, the work of the nonprofit foundation exemplifies some of the traits that Susan and her family prayed for Joe to receive at his baptism.
They asked for compassion, sensitivity, a sense of humor and a joyful spirit. They also asked for a long life.
I first met Susan shortly before the first-year anniversary of Joe’s death. I interviewed her for an article in The Bee, and she shared with me a wrenching entry she penned in her journal after Joe died.
“There is a war in my brain,” Susan wrote. “You’re gone. It can’t be true. It’s a battle I feel I will wage forever.”
Earlier this month, we sat in her sunny living room, and I asked her whether the battle still rages.
Behind Lusk was a glass case filled with keepsakes, among them Joe Lusk’s football helmet from Reedley High and his black West Point parade cap. A trunk in the corner holds his military uniforms.
“I don’t think you can go on without accepting what happened,” Susan said. “But there are times when I like to think he’s over there and coming home soon. I know it’s totally irrational and insane. But it’s hard to believe that he’s never coming back.”
Kevin Lusk — who considered Joe his best friend — suggested starting the foundation to honor his brother. Kevin and two other brothers, Scott and Jeff, live in Reedley.
Said Susan: “We all believe that Joey was destined for great things. We are doing what he can’t do anymore.”
Since 2006, the Capt. Joe F. Lusk II Memorial Foundation has been registered as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit with the Internal Revenue Service.
The foundation’s goal — according to its website — is “to bridge the financial support the government can provide our wounded veterans and the reality of their needs.”
For example, when a veteran who’d gone to Reedley High was seriously wounded in Iraq, his mother took time from work to be at his bedside in the East. The foundation covered her mortgage for three months.
More than 25 people in various states have received assistance, Lusk said.
The foundation has two major fundraisers each year — a golf tournament in the Valley and a golf tournament in Massachusetts, where the Lusks have family. The next local golf tournament will be held May 30 at Valley Oaks Golf Course in Visalia.
Veterans or their family members can apply online (joelusk.org) for the foundation’s help, although most referrals currently come from various veterans groups.
Networking with such groups recently became a goal for Susan, a retired Reedley High English teacher who teaches part time at Reedley College. Networking is part of her journey away from despair.
In December, Susan took another step when she organized a wreath-laying ceremony at Reedley Cemetery. Her inspiration was the national Wreaths Across America event.
Several hundred people came to Reedley Cemetery on Dec. 13 to place wreaths on the graves of 650 to 700 veterans, including the grave of Joe Lusk.
In 2007, Kevin and Shelby Lusk had a son they named Joe Fenton Lusk III.
Seven-year-old Joey knows that his uncle served in the Army, went to war and now is in heaven, Susan said.
Susan still drives the red sports car that Joe left with her for safe keeping. She fondly recalls her son’s words about not riding the clutch. “Keep it all the way in or all the way out,” he said.
The sports car needs some work, but Susan won’t part with it.
“I told my mechanic, ‘You have to keep it running.’ ”