Everyone knows what the image of two men in formal military dress approaching a home's front door means -- we know what comes next. The person behind the door opens it with dread. They get the news. But what happens after the knock on the door once those men leave?
This is something Jane Horton knows the answer to all too well. It's also something she believes too few Americans think about. Now she's started an awareness crusade regarding surviving military families that's caught the attention of major figures across the country, including a famous football coach, Mitt Romney, and former President George W. Bush.
'It Was Who He Was'
Chris Horton joined the U.S. National Guard at age 22 shortly before proposing to Jane. The couple had known each other while at The King's College in New York City, but did not date at the time. They also both volunteered for the Romney's 2008 presidential campaign. Within two months of dating, they were engaged. Jane said she never worried about Chris and his decision to join the National Guard and eventually become a sniper.
"He had gone to military boarding school since he was 12. It was who he was. He wanted to be a sniper and wanted to serve his country. I was excited for him to deploy too because I knew it was what he wanted."
Jane says when she would communicate with her husband in Afghanistan before he was killed on Sept. 9, 2011, she would ask him if there was anything he wanted or needed.
"One of the last things he ever said to me was, 'I want a new president.'"
"Now that he is gone, it is especially important to me," she added.
She's currently volunteering for Romney's campaign trying to make that a reality.
Horton said she estimates she is one of a few thousand military spouses who has had to receive the knock on the door and go through the motions afterward. During Operation Enduring Freedom, there have been 4,481 soldiers killed in Iraq and 2,098 killed in Afghanistan.
"The general public does not pay attention to the war in general," Horton said. "When they read the news and see that soldiers have been killed [...] they might be sad but they move on with their day. People never think about it as a person they knew. People don't pay attention to what happens to the family."
When Horton was informed in 2011 that Chris was killed in Afghanistan, she said even people in their Oklahoma town didn't care as much -- until they found out it was Chris.
"People treat the family of fallen soldiers like lepers," Horton said. "They don't like looking at me. I am like an open wound."
To look at her, she explained, is looking at the reality of war in the face. She wrote about the "leprosy" of the family of fallen soldiers in a blog post, saying "as soon as people find out that I have this derangement, they run away as fast as they can and do not want to get near me":
Whether it be my neighbors who stare at me when I walk outside, and when I turn my head to look back and smile, they quickly turn the other way and pretend they never noticed me, or whether it be my own best friends who don't know what to say to me, so they say nothing at all- the world seems to love avoiding me. Many of you who will be reading this don't know me. I don't walk around sulking in my own misery. I am the same person I always was, but I have lost a huge part of me. I don't start crying at the drop of the hat, and don't make situations awkward. I am about as normal as open as someone in my situation can be. I just have one problem...I love to talk about Chris. I love to talk about his life, his accomplishments, and our love. The problem is, other people do not want to talk about it with me. They don't know how to address the issue, or even to let me talk about it with them. I recently took off my wedding ring because I needed a break from the questions. Not for my sake, but for everyone elses. See, I don't mind telling people my husband gave his life for their freedom- they are the ones that cannot handle it. [Emphasis added]
It is for this reason -- and to honor her husband and his sacrifice and that of other soldiers killed in action -- that Horton is sharing her story in the blogosphere, is attending events, and is giving KIA (killed in action) bracelets to those who ask about the band on her wrist or others who ask about her husband in general. So far, Horton estimates she has given out more than 1,300 KIA bracelets, which cost $8 each and that she paid for out of pocket because it was "something I wanted to do."
She gave the bracelets to Chris' friends and family but also has been giving them to random people she meets and even notable figures. In fact, her story is gaining so much traction that she has met with former President George W. Bush. State senators are also wearing the bracelets and Horton recalled the brief moment she met Barry Switzer, former Oklahoma and Dallas Cowboy's football coach. Horton said she met Switzer at a homecoming event for other soldiers. She said she spoke briefly with Switzer before the event and gave him a bracelet.
When he spoke before the crowd, Horton remembers him saying "I'm never going to forget the fallen soldiers." He then went on to talk about Chris and say that he would never take off his KIA bracelet that Horton had just given him. Horton said Switzer wasn't aware of her husband's story before this meeting and that he had quickly researched Chris and retooled his speech to include him.
Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney has also recently mentioned Chris and Jane's mission at a rally last week in Tampa Bay, Fla.
"I met a woman at the GOP convention, Jane Horton of Oklahoma," Romney began at the Friday evening event. "Her husband a sharp shooter in the United States military off in Afghanistan. On the day she’s packaging up some goodies to go in his birthday package, a knock comes at the door, and they inform her that her husband had been killed, and she decides to devote herself to helping the families of others who have lost their loved ones.
"He was killed on September 9th 2011," Romney continued. "And this was a time when some very misguided people were protesting at the funerals of our servicemen and women—you recall that? And they came to the funeral of her husband. And she was asked, what do you think about this, and this is the quote—she said this: ‘Chris died for them to be able to protest.’ Chris died for them to be able to protest. This is quite a nation we live in, with some extraordinary people."
Watch the footage (Note: Romney begins speaking about Horton at 12:45):
With increasing notoriety among these high-profile people, Horton said she feels like her goal to honor her husband's sacrifice is being realized.
"I know that Chris gave his life for something bigger than himself," she explained, noting that she "couldn't have imagined" her story would get such attention.
The KIA bracelets themselves are somewhat of a military tradition with many people wearing them in honor of fallen soldiers they know. She said that while she gives most of the bracelets away, she has begun taking orders for them from people because they are expensive. If you want a bracelet, Jane asked that you visit Chris' memorial page on Facebook and send her a message.
'I Don't Want to Forget'
Horton has continued to write about what happens after the knock on the door. Her most recent blog post details her experience receiving Chris's body back in the United States. The body being flown into Dover Air Force Base in Delaware was its first dignified transfer. It would be 33 days before Chris was buried.
Horton explained to TheBlaze subsequent blog posts will focus on Chris being brought back to Oklahoma and finally being buried in Arlington Cemetery. There are realities to Horton's blog posts and story that may be surprising to hear, which is why she's sharing it in the first place. Horton says she wouldn't be able touch his casket or see her husband until after his transfer to his hometown in Oklahoma.
Horton told TheBlaze she set up a fund to raise money for the flights of Chris' body to Oklahoma and Arlington, Va. The military didn't pay for this part of the process. She said "it was the worst day of my life" when she had to fly her husband in a white box in Southwest Airlines cargo to Arlington.
"It really messed me up."
Some might think Horton would want to forget some of the feelings she endured during this time before Chris was laid to rest. But it is quite the opposite. In fact, she only regrets she had journaled more of her thoughts at the time.
"I don't want to forget what I've gone through."
When asked how, as a widow of a KIA soldier, she wants to be approached and not treated as if with leprosy, Horton said "just don't be afraid."
"I'm just a person, too," she explained. "It's different than a normal death though. He's gave his life for his country. I'm constantly reminded of his death. ... It is something we, [spouses of deceased military members,] think about every minute of every day."
So what does the future hold? While she's now working on the Romney campaign, she plans on selling her home in Oklahoma and moving to Washington, D.C. in order to act as a liaison between organizations supporting families of fallen soldiers and the military. Instead of just lamenting that no one talks about what happens after a soldier dies, she wants to make an effort to change that.
"I just want to continue to raise awareness," Horton said. "I am going to continue to tell Chris' story. ...It is a powerful story that there are people that are modern day patriots that put themselves in the line of duty because they love America. It could unite our country, [if people] remember that and change their lives a little bit."
When asked what she will remember most as she embarks on her campaign and what she valued most about Chris, Horton said it was his honor.
"I have never met a more honorable man in my life."
You can read Horton's blog for more on her thoughts regarding her husband's life, death and the process she is going through since receiving the knock on the door. See more of the effort to continue remembering Chris' sacrifice and legacy in his memorial Facebook page here.
Edited by Jonathon M. Seidl.
This story has been updated to correct the location of Dover Air Force Base.