PHOENIX -- It was the picture that grabbed America's heart this summer. A Labrador retriever lying under the coffin of his master, Jon Tumilson, a Navy SEAL killed in Afghanistan. His family is in Arizona for the holidays, brought here by a local organization, for a chance to get away from home on this first Christmas without him.
“It's been a great trip,” Kathy Tumilson said. “A really great trip.”
Twelve members of the extended Tumilson family have been in Arizona for a week, enjoying time away from Rockford, Iowa, with trips into the desert and to the Grand Canyon. But Navy SEAL, Jon Tumilson is never far from their hearts.
“I miss just being able to pick up the phone and talk to him or email him,” said Joy McMeekan, Tumilson's sister.
“Building up to Christmas we knew this is when we get to see him,” Kristie Pohlman, Tumilson's other sister.
Joy, Kristie and their mother, Kathy, said the past four and a half months have been filled with highs and lows as they came to terms with Jon's death.
“He loved every minute of it,” said Kathy Tumilson. “He loved the guys.”
Jon was on board a Chinook helicopter Aug. 6 in Afghanistan when insurgents shot it down. Eighteen members of SEAL team six died, along with eight other members of the military. Thousands attended his funeral and his dog, Hawkeye, lay on the floor under his casket.
“We'd lost someone we loved an awful lot and that dog laying there kind of told it all,” Kathy said.
Debbie Lee knows exactly how the Tumilson's feel after losing her son in 2006. He was also a Navy SEAL. Since that time, she has helped families escape their surroundings and ease their pain in Arizona.
“Your first everything, whether it's your first Christmas, the first Thanksgiving, the first birthday, those are all so difficult," Lee said.
“I think it's healing to all be together and have some fun,” Kathy said.
Jon's mother said it may have been their most difficult Christmas, but she has no doubt Jon would want them to celebrate.
“I think he did more in his 35 years than some people get to do in 90 years,” she said. But I just wish he could have done it a little longer.
There's one item of interest about the picture of the dog under the casket that made national news. It was widely reported the dog didn't want to leave the casket, or Tumilson's grave site. His mother said that is not the case. Hawkeye is well trained and stayed where he was told to stay.
For more information about the Tumilson Memorial Fund go to www.3minutesout.org.
For more information about Lee’s organization, America's Mighty Warriors, go to www.americasmightywarriors.org.