Grieving mother plans place of healing for fallen soldiers' families

May 27, 2013

For families who have lost loved ones in Iraq and Afghanistan, Memorial Day can be a time of unbearable sadness. That’s especially true for Betsey Reed Schultz, a grieving mother in Port Angeles. But the woman is a shining example of someone trying to turn her sorrow into something beautiful.

A mother's worst nightmare

It was two years ago on the Sunday of Memorial Day weekend. Betsy Reed Schultz got the visit every deployed soldier's mother fears.

Two officers, including a military chaplain, were standing at her door. The moment felt surreal.

“(I thought,) ‘If I can just keep stalling—I know what they’re here to say—if I can just keep stalling, then I don’t have to hear it,’” she said.

Then they told her. Her son—her only child—Army Captain Joseph Schultz had been killed in Afghanistan, his Humvee blown up by an IED.

Army Captain Joseph V. Schultz
Army Captain Joseph V. Schultz
Credit letsrunforjoe.com

Almost immediately, Schultz found herself surrounded by military assistants and family members. There were funeral arrangements to make. She had to get to Dover Air Force base to greet the casket.

Schultz had run a Bed and Breakfast in Port Angeles for years. She had served as the president of the local Chamber of Commerce. In he time of need, a number of community members came to her to help.

“We had folks in the house, making the phone calls,” she said.

Joseph Schultz was 36 when he died. He had traveled and worked around the world before joining the Army. He had been a political aid to Gov. Gray Davis in California, and had had an overseas appointment to USAID during the Clinton administration.

“There were eight memorial services after he died, all over, including one in Israel,” his mother said.

As we sat on her couch, Schultz, who was a single mom, remembered how her son never forgot a birthday or Mother’s Day. Even when he was stationed in Iraq, he made sure flowers were delivered to her.

Over the fireplace is a large framed, black-and-white portrait of the two of them. Joseph is in a black shirt, his arm draped over his mother’s shoulder.  Through tears, she explained how a friend had taken the photo shortly after her son enlisted back in 2001.

“He said, ‘I took it because sometimes they don’t come home, and you should have a picture with Joseph, like a formal picture.’ I have lots of pictures of Joseph, but this one is…” she said, her voice trailing off.

'Your life is forever changed'

As time passes, coping with grief becomes more difficult, says Schultz. After the initial ceremonies and everyone gradually returns to their lives. Except for Schultz.

“Your life is forever changed, and now you’re dealing with it more independently than previously,” she said.

It was thinking about this—about what happens to the families of fallen soldiers after everyone else is back in their old routine—that gave Schultz an idea.

Betsy Reed Schultz stands outside the home being transformed into the Captain Joseph House.
Betsy Reed Schultz stands outside the home being transformed into the Captain Joseph House.
Credit Paula Wissel

Welcome to the Captain Joseph House. The idea is that this place can become a specialized guesthouse—a sort of getaway—for the families of soldiers killed in the wars since Sept. 11.

The house is the same three-story Tudor-style old mansion that Schultz ran as a bed and breakfast before closing it in 2010. Surrounded by gardens, it sits on a hill in Port Angeles’ oldest neighborhood, looking out towards Vancouver Island on one side and the mountains on the other.  

The goal is to raise enough money so that families from all over the country can come and spend a week. They’ll be able to enjoy the outdoors in the Olympic Peninsula, or simply use the house as a quiet getaway place.

Schultz says her hope is that families will realize it’s OK to have fun again even though your loved one isn’t part of it.

“It’s OK to run around, and hoot and holler. It’s OK to take pictures. It can be painful, but it also can be healing,” she said.

Schultz says a big part of the healing will come from the fact that three families at a time will be staying at Captain Joseph House.

“They’ll be able to visit, get up and have breakfast, and just talk to somebody else who can, as close as you can, say, ‘I know how you feel,”’ she said.

Moving forward, one step at a time

There’s a lot of remodeling still to be done. For example, an elevator has to be put in for family members who may be disabled.

But what has been accomplished is impressive.

A Captain Joseph House Foundation has been established, and groups including the Green Beret Foundation have given money and helped spread the word nationally. The lender holding the note on the mortgage has donated the house. And countless volunteers—everyone from landscape architects to drivers willing to chauffeur families around—have come forward.

Credit Captain Joseph House Foundation's Facebook page

Still, I have to ask: You’re doing this wonderful project, but the reason that you were prompted to do it is very sad. Are there times when you wish it wasn’t here because of what sparked it?

“Some days those are very sad days, and I’ll talk to Joseph—he’s always in my heart. But sometimes I feel like I really know that he’s right there somewhere. I can’t imagine doing anything else at this point,” she said.

Schultz says when she ran the house as a bed and breakfast, his son always said it was the sort of place he could imagine bringing his children to. He never had any kids. But Schultz says one thing that keeps her going is the idea that some day soon, there will be children in this house, the Captain Joseph House.