WESLEY CHAPEL, Fla. — Even though this is the first Memorial Day in 20 years where America's servicemen and women are not in harm's way on the battlefields in Iraq and Afghanistan, there are still thousands of Americans dealing with the loss of their loved ones.
Memorial Day in America honors those who gave their lives for our country. No one knows that sacrifice more than Gold Star families — the spouses, children, parents and siblings of service members killed in battle or from wounds suffered in battle.
Every year, Memorial Day is somber for April Bitner. Her husband, Army Sergeant First Class Benjamin Bitner, was killed in Afghanistan in 2011 when he was hit by an IED.
"That day forever changed my life. When you think you have everything planned out, everything is going to be a certain way and something comes along and rips it all away from you, it’s with you forever. You can’t get past it," said April Bitner, Benjamin's widow.
This Memorial Day, eleven years after his death, April was given reason to celebrate when the Tunnel to Towers Foundation surprised her by paying off the mortgage on her Wesley Chapel home.
"I’m still in shock and kind of disbelief but, yeah, it’s a huge help because in general, that’s everyone’s biggest bill every month and now mine is paid for so I can use it to pay for other bills," she said.
April has spent the last eleven years raising their son who was only 6-months-old when Bitner was killed.
"People who serve don’t do it for their own well-being. They do it for a purpose," said April, who met Benjamin Bitner in Afghanistan while the two were deployed.
SFC Benjamin Bitner enlisted in the Army in 1991 and became a Special Forces (Green Beret) Engineer Sergeant in 2000. He was in his 10th deployment when he was killed.
"He did everything he could for his country. He consistently worked hard to make sure everybody knew that it was very important to him to not just protect our freedoms but to help liberate the oppressed in other countries," said April.
In observance of Memorial Day, Tunnel to Towers is paying off the mortgage on the homes of 21 Gold Star families across the country. It's part of their Gold Star Family Home Program and its goal to reach 1,000 mortgage-free homes for our nation's military and first responders by the end of the year.
The goal includes the first homes in the Let Us Do Good Village in Land O' Lakes, Florida, which is the first-of-its-kind community of mortgage-free homes for fallen first responder families, Gold Star families and catastrophically injured vets and first responders.
The first homes in the community of heroes are on track to be completed by the end of 2022.