One thing I have learned in three decades of covering people at their worst moments is that there is no one way to grieve.
For Annette Kirk, whose son Paul O. Cuzzupe II was 23 when he was killed in Afghanistan in August 2010, part of the process has been to help memorialize the fallen.
Kirk has been leading the charge to build a memorial at Veterans Memorial Park and Museum to the 16 residents of Hillsborough County plus 135 from elsewhere in the state who, like her son, were killed during Operation Enduring Freedom, the nation's longest war.
On Saturday, Oct. 7, years of hard work will come to fruition when the memorial is unveiled. The date marks the 16th anniversary since the war in Afghanistan was launched.
"I can finally breath," said Kirk. "But I feel like Afghanistan veterans will be honored totally."
This is not the first memorial Kirk, a 51-year-old Army veteran living in Valrico, has helped build at the park.
In 2012, after attending a Fields of Honor ceremony there commemorating the fallen, Mark Goujon mentioned that he was looking for volunteers to help with the Operation Iraqi Freedom memorial, honoring the fallen from the conflict that lasted from 2003 to 2011.
Goujon, she said, also mentioned the park was looking for volunteers for other memorials as well.
"I felt compelled," Kirk said. "I felt drawn to it. My son Paul, who graduated from Armwood High School in 2005, was a history major and political science minor at St. Leo University. I felt very much drawn to the park itself."
Initially, Kirk said she was asked to help with the Afghanistan memorial, but at the time, Operation Enduring Freedom was still underway. Plus, she served during the first Gulf War era, so she opted to take charge of that memorial, which was dedicated in 2015.
With this work under her belt, Kirk was ready to take on the Afghanistan War memorial.
Among the lessons learned from the previous effort was making sure there were enough volunteers to help with all the details and logistics for the project, which was paid for through an $80,000 county grant.
She and her husband Mike Kirk spend about 10 to 20 hours every week on the project, she said.
"Finding committed people was the hardest task," she said.
The dedication ceremony begins 11 a.m. at the park, 3602 N. Hwy 301 in Tampa.
Army Gen. Joseph Votel, head of U.S. Central Command, and Scott Bill, father of Brian Bill, a Navy SEAL killed in the worst one-day disaster in U.S. Special Operations Forces history, will be the keynote speakers, Kirk said.
But sadly, while the memorial will be finished, it is not complete.
Operation Enduring Freedom ended in 2014, but there are still more than 11,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan in follow-on missions, with another 3,500 expected to join them.
Since then, 43 U.S. service members and one civilian have been killed in Operation Freedom's Sentinel, the follow-on mission.
"We designed the memorial with two sides to the wall," said Kirk. "I hate to say it, but there is room for additional names. We hate that we had to design it for more, but we had to."
No new deaths were reported by the Pentagon last week in ongoing operations.
There have been 2,347 U.S. troop deaths in support of Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan; 43 U.S. troop deaths and one civilian Department of Defense employee death in support of the follow-up, Operation Freedom's Sentinel in Afghanistan; 38 troop deaths and two civilian deaths in support of Operation Inherent Resolve, the fight against the Islamic State; one troop death in support of Operation Odyssey Lightning, the fight against Islamic State in Libya; and one death under classified as other contingency operations as part of the global war on terrorism.
Contact Howard Altman at [email protected] or (813) 225-3112. Follow @haltman.