COLORADO SPRINGS — The long Memorial Day Weekend is a time to enjoy the freedoms given to Americans by those who made the ultimate sacrifice for our country. But for the families of the fallen, every day is Memorial Day.
A Colorado Springs Gold Star Family shared their loved one’s story with News5 on Friday. Tonya VanWinkle is a native Coloradan who served as an active duty army nurse and lived all over the world. She met her husband in Colorado Springs in 2004, and soon after got married. “His name was Roderick, but he went by Rip. So, it was Lt. Colonel Rip VanWinkle… He just had so much integrity, and he was kind and very intelligent, and he just was one in a million,” said Tonya.
May 29, 2021 would have been Tonya and Roderick’s 17th wedding anniversary. “ALS, when you get diagnosed with it, is normally a two-year prognosis. He was diagnosed on March 14 of 2018, and died on April 24 of 2018. So, just five and a half weeks later,” said Tonya.
Tonya said her husband contracted ALS as a result of being exposed to burn pits while he was deployed in Iraq. A burn pit is an area of a deployed military base where a fire is used to dispose of waste, and Tonya said they are the cause of lasting health complications for many service members.
Tonya and Roderick have two young sons, Travis and Trevor VanWinkle. Their father served in Iraq before they were born. The two said they are grateful they got to know their father since so many other children do not have that opportunity. “Learn to accept that we’re not going to ever be able to fix it, and it’s not our fault,” said Travis VanWinkle.
“For the families of our fallen, every day really is Memorial Day,” Angels of America’s Fallen CEO Joe Lewis said. “And we want to make sure people understand that it’s a lot more than a holiday to go out and enjoy a barbecue or something like that, that we’re remembering those who made the ultimate sacrifice for our country and communities.”
Travis and Trevor are part of Angels of America’s Fallen, a non-profit organization that supports children of fallen military and first responders nationwide. The goal is to get the children engaged in positive activities, like sports, music, or arts. Travis and Trevor play hockey through the program.
The CEO of Angels of America’s Fallen, Joe Lewis, said there are around 340 children enrolled in the program throughout the country. There are almost 600 kids on the waitlist. When children are registered and enrolled in the organization, it stays with them until they are 19 years old. The non-profit is headquartered in Colorado Springs and serves more local children than anywhere else in the nation. “I lost friends in every branch, and it was always a great guy with little kids, and that made me look into what are we doing for their kids, and who’s encouraging them, and who’s throwing the ball for them, and those kinds of things,” said Lewis.