Remember Michigan’s Fallen Soldiers This Memorial Day

For those who’ve lost loved ones in service, the holiday is a time to pay tribute // Photographs by CJ Benninger

In the years following the Civil War, commemorating fallen soldiers through acts like decorating grave sites and joint prayer circles began to gain popularity. But it wasn’t until 1971 that the United States dedicated an official holiday to memorialize these soldiers. In honor of this year’s Memorial Day, on May 27, a number of Gold Star families across Michigan share special stories of the loved ones who sacrificed their lives for this country. 

“There are a lot of emotions that come up with Memorial Day. Pride is one of them. I’m so proud of my son. Sacrifice comes up — the sacrifice he made for us. When I think of my son the first thing that comes to mind is drumsticks. Jimmy liked to play the drumsticks. He started a little bit later in high school, but he thoroughly enjoyed them and played them when he could.”  

— Richard Hansen, Athens (now Hanover, Pennsylvania), Father of Senior Airman James Hansen, in service 2008-Sept. 15, 2010. 

“My son was kind of a cowboy. He liked the cowboy lifestyle. He liked being outdoors. His cowboy hat brings a smile to me every time I walk by it. We have it hanging in our hallway. His friends all recognize the cowboy hat. It’s kind of like Justin’s trademark. I take it out on special occasions. When his cousin who’s the same age got married in 2012, I took Justin’s hat and sat at the table with it. Justin had worn it when he danced with his wife one time. I take it camping with me because we camped a lot when he was a kid. I see him when
I look at that hat.”

— John Ellsworth, Wixom, Father of Lance Cpl. Justin Ellsworth, in service 2003-Nov. 13, 2004 

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Fleece Cover-up: Sergeant Joe Johnson bought this thick fleece blanket in Afghanistan in honor of his battalion’s namesake, the Tiger Battalion. His mother, Teri, wraps herself in it whenever she feels cold at night.

“When Joe hit the ground in Afghanistan it was like a switch was flipped. He became the go-to person for everything. He was the one that would boost morale and he volunteered for every mission without taking a break. I got letters from his commanders. One of them said Joe was the one who stepped forward when most stepped back. Wow, I got to be his mom! It’s said that most people don’t get to meet their heroes, but I got to raise mine. My daughter is the joy and the sparkle in my life. Joe was the smile in my heart. You make my heart smile, buddy.”

— Teri Johnson, Flint, Mother of Sgt. Joe Johnson, in service 2006-June 16, 2010

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A Special String: The last time Joe came home, he left his dog tags on the doorknob of his family’s vacation home in northern Michigan.
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Red, White, and Blue Jewels: While in Afghanistan, Joe traded in his cracked iPhone and a camera his parents had bought him for a ruby and a diamond. He sent them to his parents to help pay for his sister’s medical bills. Instead, Teri fashioned them into a ring set in white gold.

“The main thing is that we never want anyone to forget about him. In his last letter to us he said, ‘Don’t let anyone forget about me. Tell everyone about me.’ That’s the reason we started a foundation in his honor called Mikie’s Minutes. He would complain that he would have to pay to call home, so we decided to start Mikie’s Minutes so that soldiers don’t have to pay to call home. We’ve sent almost a million minutes.” 

— Mike Ingram, Monroe, Father of Sgt. Mike Ingram, in service 2005-April 17, 2010

“Both Memorial Day and Veterans Day are tough for us, but they also make us very proud. He did what he wanted to do, and God had other plans. We’re not bitter
about it, we don’t argue with it, we try to live day by day.” 

— Julie Ingram, Monroe, Mother of Sgt. Mike Ingram

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Letters From Dad: One of the last letters Dani Miller’s father sent her.

“My dad was killed in action on Aug. 31, 2005 in Iraq. He had been in the Army my entire life, but this was his first and only deployment to Iraq. I have a tattoo that goes up my arm onto my shoulder and is actually a combination of two tattoos together. The first tattoo I ever got was my dad’s dog tags and some roses with his name and rank. I also have these letters from him — that was the last way I corresponded with him — and I took his writing and got it tattooed on my arm with stargazer lilies and roses that were a part of my mom’s wedding bouquet. I had all of that put onto my arm as a memory.” 

— Dani Miller, Flint, Daughter of Capt. Lowell T. Miller II, in service 1993-Aug. 31, 2005