Sailors’ families warmly supported

As the shock subsides at the news of three Whidbey sailors killed in Iraq, the Oak Harbor community is quietly rallying around the families of those lost and the military as a whole.

Whidbey Island Naval Air Station is planning a community-wide memorial service for Chief Petty Officer Gregory J. Billiter, Petty Officer 2nd Class Curtis R. Hall and Petty Officer 1st Class Joseph “Adam” McSween, but the details have not been set yet.

Kim Martin, the base public information officer, said she recently learned that the three men will receive Bronze Stars, Purple Hearts and Combat Action Stars.

Mayor Patty Cohen is working with the base for a special ceremony in May, which is Military Appreciation Month. It will be at 4 p.m., May 4 at the waterside Flintstone Park. The ceremony will be in honor of all those in the military, but will include a special time to honor the three fallen sailors.

Meanwhile, some residents have found a way to express their love and appreciation of the military.

Oak Harbor resident Nicole Herman decided to tie yellow ribbons around trees along Highway 20 in the city.

“I wanted to do something for the families of the three sailors who gave us the ultimate sacrifice,” she said, “and also for everyone who is deployed or will be deployed to Iraq.”

With plenty of help from her father and friends, they spent hours putting together the hundreds of ribbons. After getting permission from city hall, Herman posted a message on, asking people to help tie the ribbons.

About 20 people showed up at the meeting place Thursday night. Some of them wrote the names of loved ones in the military on the ribbons, then they quickly tied the ribbons on the trees.

Jennifer Goetty, who describes herself as a military wife, was among those who tied ribbons. She said her father is in Iraq and her husband is on a boat in the region.

“We don’t get much as a military family and it’s just nice to see people support us,” she said. “All we hear is the bad news about the war and nobody is supporting the troops.”

Many businesses are also doing what they can to support the families of the fallen sailors.

Frank Pulu of Frank’s Place restaurant said he is donating to the families. He said he placed a large black ribbon with three helmets in his restaurant in honor of them and led a prayer on Monday.

Albertson’s grocery store has donation canisters at each check-line stand to make it easy for customers to donate to the families. Employees also created information cards about each sailor so that people can donate to an individual family if they like.

“I think it was the right thing for us to do,” said Bob Drennen, store director.

Funds have been set up for the families in each man’s name at the Navy Federal Credit Union.

At North Whidbey Middle School, students continue to make cards and other artwork for seventh-grade teacher April Billiter, wife of Chief Petty Officer Billiter, and their 3-year-old son Cooper. A box was set up in the school where students can put their artwork, which will be sent to the family.

“They have made some really wonderful, colorful things,” said Sue Karahalios, a city council member and former teacher, who is the substitute teacher for Billiter’s class. “Some students made wonderful origami for Cooper.”

Karahalios said she was very impressed at how well the students are dealing with the tragedy.

“They are remarkably thoughtful, caring and compassionate,” she said.

April Billiter’s parents, Gary and Heidi Ehrenfeld, sent a letter of thanks to the Oak Harbor community.

“We felt an overwhelming need to thank all of you for the tremendous outpouring of love and affection this community has shown to our daughter and our grandson, Cooper,” they wrote. “In the past week you have all wrapped your arms around them. We know that all of you want to do something more to help but words and deeds just seem so inadequate. I would like to say that you have all helped in so many ways by those words and deeds. But in the weeks and months to come our hope is that, should you see our April around town or on base, you not be shy, but rather walk up to her and ask her if she is April Billiter and perhaps squeeze her hand or give her a hug. By doing so, she will know that you are all still out there for she and Cooper long after the flowers have wilted, the food is gone and the doorbell and phone have stopped ringing.”

The entire letter will run in the April 18 edition of the News-Times.

You can reach News-Times reporter Jessie Stensland at jstensland@whidbeynews or call 675-6611.

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