In celebration of Military Appreciation Month and Mother’s Day, we celebrate, honor, and remember the stories of Military Moms across the country. This week we connect you with a motivated, passionate, and dedicated Military Mom, Amy Cotta, whose son SSG Tyler Zych has been serving in the United States Marine Corps since 2011. Amy is incredibly involved in the Veteran community. Her son’s service has had a great impact on her life and her desire to help Veterans and their families. Amy is the founder of Memories of Honor, a non-profit organization whose mission is to make every day Memorial Day.
Q: What was your knowledge of military families and military service prior to your son joining the USMC?
A: Most of the men on both sides of our families have served, including my father (Army), and my former husband (Air Force). We have had family members fight in just about every war and or conflict since the Civil War.
Q: What was your initial response or reaction when you learned that your son was planning to serve? Did you anticipate his decision?
A: I always knew my son Tyler was going to serve. He grew up being the protector of the family. He attended JROTC all four years of high school. He also competed on the Raiders team. He was initially going into the Army, but then came home one day stating he had decided to go into the Marines and had asked for me to sign for him to join. Tyler was just 17 at the time. When we were at the recruiter’s office it was the proudest and most devastating day of my life. I knew too much and too many people who had lost loved ones overseas and here at home. I was speechless as I signed my name. It took everything I had not to completely break down. As I was signing the papers, I wondered had I just signed to send my son off to war. Worse yet, was I signing his death certificate, and I knew I wouldn’t be able to live with myself if anything were to happen to him.
Q: What does “Service” mean to you? Was there a difference in the meaning of “Service” once your son decided to serve?
A: I’m one of those people who believe that we should all serve our country and communities in one way or another. I also held military service in the highest regards, but something changes when it’s your only biological son… it absolutely rocked my world. In 2011, we were still losing a massive number of service members to the enemy, but that number here at home started being surpassed by the number of suicides. These are things that as a mother, you just can’t ignore and my heart hurt so bad for all these families. My brain couldn’t wrap around the magnitude of their loss and sacrifice. To this day the words of Tyler’s recruiter rings out in my head, “Ma’am it’s not a matter of if or when he will deploy, it’s a matter of where and how often.”
Q: How did you connect to your son while he was deployed? What aspects about his service have had the greatest impact on your life?
A: I had gone into a deep depression while Ty was at boot camp – those words of his recruiter rang out in my mind. People talk all the time about the separation anxiety that comes with sending your child off to college. I say take that, pour rocket fuel on it, and light a match. That’s what it feels like to sign for your child to join the Marine Corps during war time. While Ty was at boot camp, I had a pair of Bates steal toe USMC combat boots. I started wearing them everywhere I went, no matter where it was or how I was dressed. The boots gave me some comfort and feeling of connection. About a month into him being gone, there was a 5K down the road from my home, so I decided to lace up the boots and attempt to run in it. I found both discomfort and peace on the course. I met many amazing people along the way and shared many meaningful moments with them. Two weeks later I completed a half marathon in my combat boots, every step I took was a love letter to my son and a thank you note to everyone who ever served.
I quickly realized that my boot running wasn’t only helping me to cope and feel connected to my son, but others quickly followed suit. Through social media, moms all over the country reached out to me about needing a way to feel connected. They wanted to lace up boots along with me. I went from doing 5K to 50K runs – I added a military pack and then weight, and eventually the photos of thirteen fallen teammates of a friend of mine. Those races morphed into half and full Ironman Triathlons – all while wearing my boots, heavy military pack during the running leg of the races – carrying the faces of the fallen with me for all to see, read their names, and acknowledge their sacrifice.
Q: Can you share with us more about how you built this community for yourself over the past decade?
A: Terra, one of the mothers of the fallen on my pack, had reached out to me and said that her son Anthony had always wanted to do an Ironman, but he was never given that privilege as he was killed in action at only 24-years old. Right then and there, I promised her that I would live out Anthony’s dream for and with him. I would do the inaugural Ironman Chattanooga 140.6 in his honor and memory. Little did I know the date of the race happened to have fallen on Gold Star Mother’s Day – and that one simple act would turn into Memories of Honor. I am beyond grateful for Anthony and though I never had the privilege of meeting him, he has forever touched and changed my life. There isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t think of him and his mother, and all of our Gold Star Families. The courage and strength they have to drum up daily is beyond my comprehension. There is nothing that we can do to take away their pain and fill that void left by the loss of their loved one – but we can and we MUST do something every day to try to bring some comfort and peace to them. They have already experienced their worst nightmare, their loved one is gone; now their greatest fear is that he/she will be forgotten. I have made it my life’s work to make sure these men and women are never forgotten and their families know they are not alone.
Q: Tell us about more about Memories of Honor. How does this organization drive change, awareness, and community for military, Veterans, and their families?
A: I didn’t set out to start a nonprofit, it was just something I did… I’m the type of person that I will sit and feel sorry for myself for a few minutes, few days, or even a few weeks, then I take a hard look and ask myself, “how can I fix this? What can I do to make it better? What can I do to help someone else?” The nonprofit was 100% organic, and I was just following where my heart and intuition told me to go. The moment I decided to follow that nagging voice, doors started flying open! I knew that I had found my place and purpose in life. I wouldn’t change all of the worry and heartache I experienced back in 2011 with sending my son off to the corps, it made me the person I am today and it gifted me with so many amazing lifelong friends.
The mission of Memories of Honor is simple: to make every day Memorial Day. Long after the casseroles and sympathy cards stop coming and rest of the world has moved on, often surviving families feel alone and isolated in their grief. It doesn’t have to be this way, and it shouldn’t ever be this way. We must come together and wrap these families in love and support that surpasses all understanding. Memories of Honor honors all branches, all dates, and all loss of life due to service which includes, killed in action, missing in action, training accidents, self-infliction, medical issues related to service, and any loss while on active duty. We have service members in our database going back to WWII, Vietnam, and every war and conflict since. We welcome all surviving family members into our loving and supportive community.
Q: What would you want non-military mothers and civilians to know about your experience as a Military Mom?
A: My experience isn’t unique. At some point we have all been part of, or witnessed a life altering experience or event. Choose to use that experience as fuel, do something with that experience to better yourself, and everyone around you. We all have a life’s purpose; we just need to dare to chase it down.
For more information about Amy Cotta and how you can connect with Memories of Honor, please visit: http://Memoriesofhonor.org