Eileen Gavagan–Redd apologizes for the way she gushes about her son, especially to those who don’t know him.
When she answers a reporter’s request for one piece of information—by sharing half a dozen more stories about him—she ends her email with a smiley face and says she just can’t help it. She wants everyone to know Aaron Nevãda Redd, to picture his smiling brown eyes that were so big when he was little, his parents nicknamed him Casper after the Friendly Ghost of cartoon fame.
He and other kids on Hubbard Court, in the Austin Ridge subdivision of Stafford County, became such a part of each other’s lives that they regularly vacationed together. The Redd home is filled with photos from the beach, mountains or sporting events with Aaron showing that signature smile, his arms around the shoulders of any number of different people.
Before he went off to the U.S. Coast Guard, he spent so much time with neighbors that Julie and Rob Smith included him in their family’s weekly chore list. “Whatever I put on that list for him to do, he happily did,” Julie Smith said.
Growing up, he approached every sport or challenge—playing ice hockey on a frozen pond behind the subdivision or jumping off the highest dock at a lake near North Carolina—with fervor and fearlessness.
“It didn’t matter the sport, you always wanted Aaron on your team, and you always won if you did,” said Ryan Utterback, one of his many friends.
No matter what the endeavor, Gavagan–Redd can just hear Aaron saying, “I got this.”
Aaron collapsed on July 1, 2016, during a Coast Guard fitness run. His life ended five days later, with his family and Guardsmen around him.
His mother makes it quite clear that before she can talk about his death, she must share the details of an amazing life.
“My job is to keep his spirit alive,” said Gavagan–Redd, who doesn’t refer to Aaron in the past tense. “He’s here. His spirit is all around.”
It certainly is evident in the living room, where there’s an enlarged photo of him between the couch and armchair. When she and her husband, Frank, watch TV, Aaron is there with them.
As families around the Fredericksburg region celebrate on this Mother’s Day, Gavagan–Redd doesn’t know how she’ll fare the first time she marks it with Aaron in spirit only.
Her older son will be at her side, and she’ll be grateful, once more, that Evan, 26, put his life in New York on hold to stay with his parents after his brother’s death.
Aaron and Evan also have an older half-brother, Khristiane Redd, in New Jersey.
Gavagan–Redd is sure of one thing. There will be tears on Mother’s Day, but they won’t last long. The spirit of Aaron won’t allow them to linger.
“Aaron would have wanted a pie in the face,” she said, remembering his favorite way to celebrate a special occasion. “He makes it easy for us to laugh because of who he is, so we can always find the joy.”
A CAREER OF SERVICE
Aaron attended Stafford schools, graduated from Colonial Forge High School in 2014 and spent one semester at West Virginia University.
It didn’t suit him.
He grew up among military families, “surrounded by strong, capable men and women” who raised their families in a strong, safe neighborhood, said Aaron’s uncle, James Gavagan.
Aaron wanted a career in the service. His brother said he liked the idea of plucking bad guys out of the ocean as they tried to smuggle drugs into the country, so he signed up for the U.S. Coast Guard.
The young man worked and played as hard as he laughed. One of his mother’s favorite photos is of the Forge soccer team, hoisting a championship trophy. He played hockey in the street and paintball in the woods. He hiked and kayaked, sprinted and swam, and practiced corner kicks at any open soccer field.
For someone so athletic to collapse during a 1.5-mile fitness run, five days after he got to the Coast Guard’s Training Center at Cape May, N.J., seems hard to fathom.
a trait turns deadly
Dr. Randy Eichner, an internist in California, read about Aaron’s death and contacted the family. Using autopsy findings, he determined the 21-year-old had a genetic disorder called sickle cell trait.
People with sickle cell trait have one gene with sickle hemoglobin and one normal one. It doesn’t develop into the blood disorder known as sickle cell anemia.
Typically, sickle cell trait doesn’t cause a problem. But during intense exercise, when people may get dehydrated or push themselves even more, blood cells that are normally round change into what looks like a “C” or sickle.
These cells cause a logjam in the blood vessels, and tissues and muscles don’t get the blood they need. In extreme cases, the muscles break down and release fibers into the bloodstream—and people collapse and die.
Eichner knows of at least 150 such deaths in the military since 1970. In this century alone, 30 service recruits and at least 10 college athletes have died the same way as Aaron Redd.
The doctor, who worked with the Oklahoma University football team, has been following the trail of this trait for 30 years. He’s written a book about his findings and what can be done to prevent the deaths.
“My aim is to end them before I end,” he said in an email.
‘I THANK AARON’
Even though Aaron spent just five days as a recruit in Delta Company 193, he was named an honorary graduate “and is forever a U.S. Coast Guardsman,” his mother said.
That’s brought so much peace to the family that Gavagan–Redd still can’t find the words to express her gratitude. And she knows how to turn a phrase: She works in marketing and communication and often writes in a journal.
She cherishes memories of the way his fellow recruits were with him from the moment he collapsed until his last breath. On July 6, when Aaron’s heart was prepped to be transplanted, the hospital hallways were lined with Guardsmen standing at attention.
“I can’t thank them enough for everything they’ve done,” the mother said. “I’m very proud to be associated with the Coast Guard, and every day, I thank Aaron for that.”
Capt. Owen Gibbons, commanding officer at the Cape May training center, might say that goes double for him. He’s seen the Redd family’s “grace and resolve that is beyond rare.”
“Even in the hospital when members of my staff would visit Eileen with the intent of comforting her, she would often turn the tables and end up providing words of thanks, comfort and encouragement to folks that she saw were also struggling with the situation,” Gibbons wrote in an email.
Gavagan–Redd isn’t a tattoo person but she had the words, “Embrace Your Inner Aaron,” inked onto her wrist. She encourages family and friends to live the way Aaron would have.
She said her husband is on board “with every crazy idea” she’s had, even though “he might not share the same enthusiasm,” Evan Redd said.
Frank Redd is visiting Australia, fulfilling a lifelong dream. His son’s death was a reminder of life’s uncertainty, so she urged him to take the long talked-about vacation with his friend.
“Aaron would have loved that,” she told him.
At the same time, the mother is determined to help get a memorial built at Cape May that will honor Aaron and 1,500 other shipmates who’ve died on Coast Guard duty. She asked mourners to donate to the Coast Guard Enlisted Memorial Foundation in lieu of funeral flowers, and that alone generated $16,000.
She’s spearheading the first Coast Guard Classic Golf Tournament, June 16, at Potomac Shores Golf Club in Dumfries. All proceeds will go to the memorial, and she’s already been amazed by the outpouring of love, raffle items and sponsors.
Focusing on “something truly meaningful” helps in the midst of the sorrow. Just as her eyes clouded up with tears, again, she recognized that Aaron would have said something funny at that point, to lighten the mood, so she changes the subject to Jan. 19, 2017.
That was Aaron’s 22nd birthday. Knowing the kick he got out of having a pie in the face, she encouraged his honorary brothers and sisters, in the Coast Guard and on Hubbard Court, to do the same and post it on Facebook.
Young men and women squeezed whipped cream onto a pie plate, then smacked themselves in the face with it.
“It just makes people laugh, and that’s what he would have wanted,” the mother said.