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'You form bonds': Tragedy brings mothers together

Joyce Mehrer, left, and Sheila Richter, stand at North Dakota Memorial to the Fallen in the Global War on Terrorism memorial located at the entrance of North Dakota National Guard Fraine Barracks in Bismarck. The two Bismarck mothers have developed a strong relationship after their sons, Cpl. Curtis R. Mehrer and Sgt. Travis A. Van Zoest, were killed by a roadside bomb while deployed with the 188th Air Defense Artillery 1st Battalion in Afghanistan on June 6, 2006. (Mike McCleary / Bismarck Tribune)1 / 3
Sgt. Travis A. Van Zoest was killed by a roadside bomb while deployed with the North Dakota National Guard 188th Air Defense Artillery 1st Battalion in Afghanistan on June 6, 2006. (Provided)2 / 3
Cpl. Curtis R. Mehrer was killed by a roadside bomb while deployed with the North Dakota National Guard 188th Air Defense Artillery 1st Battalion in Afghanistan on June 6, 2006. (Provided)3 / 3

The loss of Joyce Mehrer's and Sheila Richter's sons resulted in an inseparable bond.

On June 6, 2006, their sons — Cpl. Curtis Mehrer and Sgt. Travis Van Zoest — were killed when their vehicle struck a roadside bomb in Afghanistan. They were 21 years old.

The mothers had never met prior to their sons being killed, but today they are best friends.

"We finish each other's sentences," said Mehrer, with a laugh.

Mehrer and Richter said their sons also did not know each other before they were deployed, but had striking similarities.

Mehrer said Curtis was "outgoing" and could strike up a conversation with anybody. Richter said Travis was the same, as well as "charismatic" and goal-oriented. Both of their sons also enjoyed snowboarding.

Coincidentally, on the Mother's Day before they were killed, their sons each sent them a bouquet of flowers with the same stargazer lilies. Their sons' similarities and other eerie occurrences since their deaths have strangely brought solace to the two mothers.

"I know the boys are telling us, 'Knock it off,' but also, that's how we get through it," Richter said.

Richter and Mehrer are not shy of talking publicly about their sons. In fact, they tend to always take opportunities to share their experiences as a way to increase awareness about those in the military.

"I think people tend to forget if they're not affected by the military that we still have people overseas and we have to support them no matter what," Richter said.

Since their sons died, Mehrer and Richter also have made an effort to reach out to other families of soldiers killed in action.

When there's news of another soldier killed, Richter said: "It takes you back to that day."

"It's like a wound that never heals. Every time you see that name, your heart breaks because you know there's another mother that can't sleep at night, can't breathe, that lost their son or daughter," Mehrer said.

The two mothers said they remember the crucial support they received when their sons died.

For Curtis' funeral visitation, Mehrer recalled an older woman was there whom she had never met. It was Kenneth Hendrickson's mother, a National Guard soldier killed in Iraq in 2004. Mehrer said she was shocked that the woman was there, because she had just recently lost her son.

"I will never forget that; that she came and made me feel like I wasn't alone in the world. That she knew exactly what I was going through that night," Mehrer said.

Mehrer and Richter continue to support other families and remind them that the can recover from the grief and heartache.

"You just find your new normal and you do survive," Mehrer said.

Not only are Mehrer and Richter good friends, but they also have maintained close ties with about a handful of other mothers whose children were deployed with their sons.

"You form bonds," said Richter, of the other mothers and family members they've grown close to over the years. "We don't consider them friends; they're family."

Each year around the anniversary of their sons' deaths, Mehrer and Richter hold a memorial event, which is open to all veterans and their families.

"It's more about the bonding experience the soldiers are getting," Richter said of the event. "And then for us, too, it's helpful for us not to sit at home that day, because you're not supposed to focus on the date of death, you're supposed to focus on the life."

Mehrer said they encourage the veterans to talk with one another, but don't push them. For some veterans who attend, it's the first social event they've been to since returning home.

In addition to this event and promoting awareness of those in the military, Mehrer and Richter also participate in casualty officer training. When a soldier is killed, their families are visited by a casualty officer, or someone who works for the military, who helps with funeral arrangements and other tasks.

Mehrer and Richter recalled how difficult it was for their casualty officers to convey to them why it was taking several days for their sons' bodies to be brought back to North Dakota. Now, they attend casualty officer trainings in Bismarck to offer a family's perspective.

For Mother's Day, Richter and Mehrer try to focus on the good memories they have of their sons. They each have adult children — Mehrer has another son, Travis' twin, Alan, and Richter has two other sons, Derrick and Tyler.

Richter said she "feels cheated" that she didn't get to watch Travis grow up and wonders whether she would have grandchildren by now.

"That's always in the back of my mind," she said.

Mehrer said she struggles with the fact that she won't get to do the mother-son dance at Curtis' wedding, as she did with his twin brother, and other "little things like that."

While the months of May and June can be difficult for Mehrer and Richter, they aim to focus on optimism.

"For a long time, you focus on the death and why me, but now I think we've shifted to trying to remember their life, how blessed we were to have them for 21 years," Richter said.