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Army Widow Rides Final Challenge For Memorial Day
by Rob McIlvaine - May 31, 2012

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ARLINGTON, Va. (Army News Service, May 29, 2012) -- Donna Engeman, Installation Management Command program manager of Survivor Outreach Services, rode into Washington, D.C., this weekend with about 1,200 other motorcycle riders who came from as far away as California to ride with the Rolling Thunder, May 27.

May 28, 2012 - Donna Engeman, Survivor Outreach Services manager at Installation Management Command, rode her Harley Davidson from San Antonio to Washington, D.C., to ride in Rolling Thunder this past Memorial Day. Her main reason was to visit her husband, John, at Arlington Cemetery, Va. Photo by Rob McIlvaine
May 28, 2012 - Donna Engeman, Survivor Outreach Services manager at Installation Management Command, rode her Harley Davidson from San Antonio to Washington, D.C., to ride in Rolling Thunder this past Memorial Day. Her main reason was to visit her husband, John, at Arlington Cemetery, Va. Photo by Rob McIlvaine

She and another IMCOM employee, Mark Armantrout of G4, Logistics, however, only came half way across the country, from Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio, Texas.

While visiting her husband's grave at Arlington National Cemetery this past Saturday, Engeman began to laugh and said "Last night, when we pulled in to the hotel, I felt absolute relief to be off the bike."

This was her third big challenge, but Engeman has faced many challenges over the years. The following is just three of them.


John Engeman set a goal for his wife and on May 13, 2006, he watched, via the Internet from Iraq, as she received her bachelor's degree in political science and public administration.

"He was so excited for me," Engeman said in an article published on the Arlington National Cemetery website.

"For him to be able to see me graduate was really special. He told me afterward that I looked great and that he'd call me the next day on Mother's Day," she said.

The call never came.

Chief Warrant Officer 4 John Engeman, 45, along with Master Sgt. Robert H. West, 37, of Elyria, Ohio, died in Baghdad, Iraq, on May 14, 2006, when an improvised explosive device detonated near their Humvee during combat operations. Both Soldiers were assigned to the 1st Battalion, 312th Regiment, 30th Enhanced Separate Brigade, Clinton, N.C.


Her next challenge was when, after a 2007 Gold Star Ceremony at the Pentagon, she was standing outside in the hallway thinking, 'if I ever get a chance to tell the Army what I think.'

"Suddenly I found myself standing alongside (then) Army Chief of Staff Gen. George W. Casey Jr. I told him in so many words that this whole casualty assistance process stinks." She turned to walk away, thinking he'd fix it.

Casey lost his father, Maj. Gen. George W. Casey, in Vietnam in July 1970 and he developed the idea for a better support system for survivors of fallen service members in late 2006. But he knew he couldn't do it alone.

"Don't walk away," Casey called out to her. "You're going to help me fix it." Two years later, Casey and Engeman and about 55 other survivors met at the Survivor Outreach Services Summit to take stock of how far they'd come and how far they had to go.


This challenge was personal and the payoff taught her many things about herself. But she also viewed this week's ride as an opportunity to do some education and outreach for work.

"I wanted to show JD (her husband) that I'm okay and that I'm moving forward."


"This challenge is also to bring some recognition to the Gold Star because so many people don't know what they are. The star identifies them as family members of those giving the ultimate sacrifice in combat and in active service," she said.

There's Gold Star Wives, Gold Star Mothers, both Congressionally chartered organizations, and Gold Star Dads.

During the 2011 Army Family Action Plan conference, the Gold Stars in attendance asked IMCOM leadership to have some sort of Gold Star recognition campaign, some sort of education and awareness plan.

The Gold Stars, she said, are very small symbols, and sometimes outside the survivor community, there's not a great deal that knows what they are. But these symbols are so huge to the survivor community.

"So we've been working that, and I thought this was something I could do because in the motorcycle community there's a lot of survivors. It's not just about Iraq and Afghanistan, although that's in the forefront of our mind right now, but there are survivors from so many conflicts. And they need to be recognized," Engeman said.

She thought her ride could be used to help bring recognition to that.

"We also really want to train the civilian workforce. It's my hope, down the road, we can get some training into TRADOC (U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command) about the Gold Star pins, and I think it fits in with casualty training," she said.


They left Saturday night for Grand Prairie, Texas, where they connected with the Run for the Wall, a group from California, riding on her brand new Harley Davidson 1200 CVO.

"After a few hours sleep, we were on our way and rode into Louisiana, Mississippi, Tennessee and then Virginia."

She said she learned a great deal about herself: First, that she could get to Washington, D.C., on her motorcycle.

I've ridden with groups of people -- maybe 15 or 20 and at the most 100. But riding in a big group in staggered formation, oh my word, in one second you're going 80 mph, and the next second you're going 30 mph. But all within in the speed limit, safety first, you know, but we had police escort.

Engeman said she's always trying to be a better rider.

"It was really a sense of accomplishment, though, because we rode through rain, through hail, and usually when I'm riding through stuff like that, like if I'm by myself, I pull over, and they didn't pull over.

"I thought, this is dangerous; you have to know what you're doing, and I looked down and said to myself, yeah, but I know what I'm doing, and I'm staying. Don't get cocky though," she laughed.

"What I didn't factor in when I was planning this was how my emotions might affect me on a certain day while riding and that really has a lot to do when you're riding," she said.

She did wear a helmet.

"I don't think IMCOM would have supported it if I didn't, and if you're going to ride with the Run for the Wall, you have to agree to wear a helmet. And in all honesty, I think that's only good sense in that kind of a group."


"Right around a year ago, a good friend of mine, Doctor Jill Lamorie, who now works for the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences in Bethesda, Md., said they were gearing up to do a study called the The National Military Family Bereavement

She and I met through TAPS (Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors), trying to do an assistant program for survivors.

The five-year study -- a Congressionally Directed Medical Research Program -- collaborates with the Army Survivor Outreach Services, TAPS, Gold Star Wives of America, Inc., American Gold Star Mothers, Inc., National Military Families Association, Military Child Education Coalition, and Snowball Express.

"It's the first study of its kind on military families and grief, and Jill is heading up the field research. And in her work she comes into contact with a lot of non-government organizations that work with survivors.

Two organizations help with her reality.


"One of those organizations is the Travis Manion Foundation. She works very closely with them and she called me one day and said, 'Hey, I've got a challenge for you,' and I was right in the middle of trying to meet deadlines at IMCOM so I already had enough challenges, and she said, 'oh no, you'll like this one,' and I said 'what?'

The Manion Foundation, located in Doylestown, Pa., has a program called "Honor the Fallen by Challenging the Living."

"So basically, you come up with some sort of challenge that challenges you, helps you move forward, yet it honors your loved one at the same time."

Engeman said this program spoke to her, as a survivor, about resiliency, how the Army needs to make their families, Soldiers, and civilian workforce resilient, but the Army doesn't talk too much about survivor resiliency.

"And I think it's really neat that I was able to choose my own path, which is all about resiliency -- learning to choose your own path again.

"For me, I have days when I can't even brush my teeth or tie my shoes without somebody telling me to close the door when I walk out of the house."

The program, she said, had a group of Marines who were walking the Appalachian Trail, and a young man was running across the United States.

"But they offered $5,000 grants for these challenges and Jill said, 'you need to do it,' and I said, yeah, okay, how about if I ride my bike from San Antonio and back to see JD for Memorial Day.'"

What she didn't realize, though, was Jill pitched Engeman's challenge to the Manion Foundation and they jumped on it, but first she had to write up her quest and submit it.

"I had to really think about it. It'd really be a challenge but you know what, why would it be a challenge, what would be so important about it?

But you have to also have a plan, she said.

"You can't just say I'm going to hop on my bike and ride, you got to figure out how many days you're going to be, on the road, all the logistics involved -- what's it going to cost, how much fuel do you think you're going to need, where are you going to stay, what's your route going to be, and what's your risk assessment -- what kind of safety things are you going to take into consideration.


"I was busy trying to work this all out when another colleague, Charles O'Leary, suggested I look into a group called Run for the Wall. Every year this groups starts out in California a week or so before Memorial Day and they ride across the United States to the (Vietnam Veterans Memorial) wall for Rolling Thunder," Engeman said.

Run for the Wall promotes healing among all veterans, their families and friends, calls for an accounting of all Prisoners of War and those Missing in Action, honors the memory of those Killed in Actions from all wars, and supports military personnel all over the world.

"And they've done this run so many times, that the routes are set, the townspeople know when they're coming through, and they have activities and things set up. The group also had the logistics, a maintenance vehicle, and medical and chaplain support."

With the logistics package already built in, all she had to do was register and join up with them.

"So then all I had to figure out was the cost of fuel, lodging, and meals. For two people, I estimated about $1,500 round trip and I tried to estimate high, and for the lodging, I just called ahead and got all the rates."

On the way up from Fort Sam Houston, she said, a lot of the towns were generous. Groups, such as the VFW, the auxiliaries, the Moose Lodge, and the American Legion, fed the bikers when they arrived.

"One thing that happened was so amazing. I think we were coming through Mississippi, and we were riding along -- the town knows we're coming through, it's been on the news and advertised and stuff -- so on the overpasses, people would get out and there'd be flags hanging and they'd be waving -- it was just an awesome feeling."

"But going down one stretch of freeway I looked over to the left and there was a young Soldier and he was standing at attention, saluting, and I think it was at that moment I thought, you know, we like to talk about everything that's wrong with America. That young man, that Soldier, that's what's right."

Engeman is passionate about her work with SOS, Gold Stars, and the survivors.


She said there were five Gold Star members who rode with her.

"We got to talking about the Gold Stars and I mentioned to one of them that I had my Gold Star banner and if there was ever an opportunity, I'd like to tell people about the Gold Star banner, the pins, and what I do in my work."

The next morning, she said they called her up on stage in Chattanooga, Tenn., gave her a microphone and said, 'here, talk.'

"To be able to address the group was quite an honor and a great opportunity to say something about Survivor Outreach and what I do, but also to share my story with them. I often feel like it's not always me doing that talking, I mean it's my story, but it was our story, our family's story."

After her talk, others came up to her and began telling their story, too.

"We all have a special story, and we're the ones left here to make sure those stories go on and to represent that. To be chosen by somebody to share their story with me is very humbling and I'm very grateful for that opportunity," Engeman said.

To get more information on the Army's SOS program, visit

For more information on the Travis Manion Foundation, visit

For more information and to get updates on the National Military Family Bereavement Study, visit them at

For more information on Run for the Wall, visit them at

To get more information on Rolling Thunder, Inc., visit them at

For more information on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall, visit

By Rob McIlvaine
Army News Service
Copyright 2012

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