Iraq war widow returns to alma mater to talk about faith, friendships
By Madison Mathews
Press Staff Writer
Photo by Madison Mathews
MILLIGAN COLLEGE — In 2006, tragedy struck Autumn Letendre’s life.
Autumn’s husband, Marine Corps Capt. Brian S. Letendre, a Milligan College alumnus, was killed while conducting combat operations in Iraq’s al-Anbar province.
Since her husband’s death, Autumn has been traveling around the country to speak with other military families in order to help people find the courage to carry on.
“It’s just to prove that you have a choice. You have a choice to get up or to stay down, and I wanted to get up and this is now what I do. I enjoy my work,” she said Thursday after speaking to a crowd of students, faculty and staff at Milligan, which is also her alma mater.
Through the tragedy of Brian’s death, Autumn helped build the Golden Star USA Foundation, which provides marriage retreats for active duty and honorably discharged troops and their families. These year-round retreats help military couples and their children with the challenges they face during deployment and when the troops return home.
Autumn and Brian met as students at Milligan in 1997. After Autumn graduated in 1999, she and Brian were married in Indianapolis on April 21, 2001.
Within weeks of being stationed in North Carolina, Brian was deployed to Japan. Autumn later discovered she was pregnant just months prior to Brian’s deployment to Iraq in 2002. Dillon Scott Letendre was born the day Brian went to Iraq.
“During these times, the world is a mess and there’s a storm within you. You have to make a choice on how you’re going to handle the storm,” she said.
Brian made it back home to his family, but in 2006, he made the decision to volunteer to go back to Iraq.
On May 3, 2006, Autumn received word her husband had been killed in the line of duty.
“The storm of the world and the mess that the world had been in on that day was silent, cause now it was my internal storm that I had to deal with,” she said.
Autumn said she was honored to be back at Milligan to speak to the students of her alma mater.
“This is a great place to be. This is where I fell in love with my husband and it’s great to be here,” she said. “To be able to share that was such a great part of my life. It’s fun to be back. It’s hard to be back, but it’s fun to be back.”
Through dealing with life’s tragedies, Autumn said she couldn’t have made it through if it hadn’t been for her strong faith and the friendships she made during her time at Milligan. She hoped the people sitting where she once sat as a student realized how important both faith and friendship can be during times of pain and sadness.
“I’m hoping that those who are here realize that we don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow and we need to recognize who’s around us today because we might need them tomorrow. That’s sure what I did here at Milligan and … we are bonded by our time here at Milligan,” she said.
In addition to being a motivational speaker and running the Golden Star USA Foundation, Autumn has also reached out to people through song. Her song, “Raise Your Flag, Raise It High,” is a tribute to the power of the American flag, which served as a symbol of comfort during her time of mourning.
Through sharing her story of hope, Autumn said she enjoys helping people through whatever personal tragedies they might be dealing with.
“No story is the same but yet the pain resonates with all of us when we have a tragedy and to be able to speak to one another and comfort one another when those times are near, you can’t teach that, you have to live that,” she said.
“Raise Your Flag, Raise it High” is available for download from iTunes. All proceeds from her music go to support her foundation’s Five Points USA Marriage Retreat.
MILLIGAN COLLEGE is a Christian liberal arts college in Northeast Tennessee whose vision is to change lives and shape culture through a commitment to servant leadership. The college offers more than 100 majors, minors, pre-professional degrees and concentrations in a variety of fields, along with graduate and adult degree completion programs. To learn more about Milligan College, visit www.milligan.edu or call 800-262-8337.