For Glendora resident Audrey Nichka, there was a time when Memorial Day was about the barbecues and three-day weekend.
But that all changed Feb. 18, 2007, when her only son, 20-year-old Lance Cpl. Blake Howey, was killed when his convoy was struck by a roadside bomb in Iraq.
Now on every Memorial Day, Nichka, 47, visits her son’s grave and attends the Memorial Day service at . Nichka spends the rest of the holiday at home, mourning and remembering her son like so many families who have lost a loved one to war.
“Memorial Day has a different meaning for me than maybe most people,” said Nichka. “I think about my son, the boys we lost, and the ones who come back so traumatized. I think people should stop and realize, at least for a moment, what this day is really about.”
Howey was the youngest Glendora native to die in the Iraq war. Army Specialist Elias Elias, 27, was killed in 2006, and Army Staff Sergeant, Thomas M. McFall, 36, was killed in 2007.
For years, Nichka raised her son as a single parent and the two were very close. Howey signed up for the Marines immediately following his graduation from l, much to his mother’s dismay.
Nichka said she had family members who served in the military to try to dissuade her son, and even sent him to Hawaii in hopes he would forget about the military.
But Howey was determined to join the Marines.
“When I knew he had made up his mind, I decided all I could do was support him,” said Nichka. “I’m so grateful I did…I’m glad he died knowing I supported him.”
Looking back Nichka said there were signs she knew her son was never coming back home alive.
During her son’s send-off party, Nichka remembers spending the whole party constantly taking photos, wanting to capture every moment. Finally, Nichka remembers her son covering the lens of her camera with his hand as she snapped another photo.
“He said, ‘Mom, you act like I’m never coming back, I’m coming home,’” recalls Nichka.
“That was last photo I ever took of Blake.”
“I’ll never forget that day.”
Nichka remembers the day her son died. It was also the last time she ever spoke to him alive.
Howey had been deployed to Iraq just three weeks when she finally received a phone call from her son.
Nichka said he had been nervous, but a recent mission had gone well and he was feeling more relaxed.
“I’ll never forget that day,” said Nichka. “I was so happy to hear from him and hear his voice.”
Nichka decided to celebrate the occasion by taking the family to Disneyland. Several hours later, a neighbor called Nichka to tell her military officers were waiting at her house. Nichka knew what that meant.
“They only come to your house if there’s a casualty, but even then I didn’t want to believe it,” said Nichka. “I just spoke to him on the phone. He was fine.”
Following his phone call to his mother, Howey was called on reconnaissance mission. Officers told Nichka her son was the driver in the mission when an IED exploded on his side of the vehicle.
Howey was killed instantly.
A Memorial Fund
It has been five years since her son was killed, but that doesn’t mean pain has subsided.
“I’m not angry at anyone, because unfortunately it’s a war and you’re going to have casualties,” said Nichka. “But I’m extremely sad that my son’s not around because I miss him everyday.”
Nichka channeled her grief into a memorial fund in her son’s name. At first, the fund was used to send care packages to soldiers in her son’s unit. When his unit returned home, Glendora city officials asked Nichka if her fund could help raise money for the __
The __ monument honoring all of Glendora’s fallen soldiers is nearing construction. Almost all of the $140,000 to complete the project has been raised.
Nichka said they are several thousand dollars away from their goal.
Once the monument is completed, Nichka said she hopes to direct the focus of her son's memorial fund to helping family members of soldiers who died.
“If you’re a wife or child, the military supports you. But if you’re a mother, a father, a sister, or brother of a soldier, they don’t have the same benefits,” said Nichka. “But there are so many families out there struggling to cope with the death.
“And it doesn’t get easier to cope with a loss. It gets harder.”