McCrabb: Warrior Weekend to Remember ‘heals hearts, minds and souls’ of parents who lost soldiers

Team Fastrax’s John Hart says annual event ‘saves lives and changes lives for the better.’

Paul Zanowick didn’t need to answer the front door or hear the sincere words uttered by two Marines and one Navy chaplain to know how his family’s life had forever changed.

His son, Marine Cpl. Paul “Rocky” Zanowick II, 23, was killed on June 3, 2011 while conducting offensive operations in the Nahr-E Saraj of Helmand Province, Afghanistan.

In the 12 years since, there was a time when the Zanowick family — Paul, his wife, Nanette, and their daughter, Nicole — lived minute to minute.

When it was 9:05 a.m. Monday, they hoped to be breathing at 9:10 a.m.

“The grief was intense. It was frequent,” he said recently. “It was like being on a rollercoaster.”

Eventually, every Wednesday, the family could think about the upcoming weekend.

“There are degrees of death,” said Zanowick, 66, wearing a Marine baseball cap over his long gray hair and his son’s replica dog tags hanging around his neck.

Credit: Lisa Powell

Credit: Lisa Powell

He mentioned losing a child to an illness or in an auto crash. He called those deaths “the worst thing in the world that could happen to a parent.”

But the Zanowicks never had an opportunity to say good-bye to their son. There was no time for a final, hospital bedside prayer.

“Our son gave his life,” he said. “He fought the enemy and fell doing it. He gave his life. He didn’t have it taken away. There is something different.”

Sometimes, tears roll down his face as he experiences something — a sound, a smell, a song — that reminds him of his son. “Emotional ambushes” is how he described those times.

For the Zanowicks, their lives are divided into two parts: Before and after June 3, 2011. He compared it to how people remember Nov. 22, 1963, the day John F. Kennedy was assassinated.

Part of the grieving process for the Miamisburg family is attending Warrior Weekend to Remember, organized by Team Fastrax, the Middletown-based professional skydiving team.

The annual event that was held last weekend at Camp Chautauqua allows Purple Heart recipients, combat injured warriors and Gold Star families an opportunity to bound through various activities and camp fire conversations.

There are more handshakes, hugs, and tears than at a family reunion.

While attending the last 10 Warrior to Remember Weekends, the Zanowicks have met numerous combat injured soldiers. Zanowick said some are reluctant to talk to him because they have “survivor’s guilt.”

They don’t understand why they came home to his families and Zanowick II, a 2006 Miamisburg High School graduate, flew home in a flag-draped casket.

“We don’t have anger toward them for coming home,” he said. “We are happy for them.”

That connection is one of the goals of the event, said John Hart, who organizes the event with his brother, David.

John Hart said this year’s weekend attracted 100 Purple Heart recipients and combat wounded warriors, including 60 alumni. The event is supported by about 1,000 volunteers who transport the veterans and Gold Star families to the different events at Middletown Regional Airport, prepare and clean up after meals, really anything they’re asked.

“It’s a blessing,” Hart said.

Hart described the weekend as “beautiful and powerful” and said it “saves lives and changes lives for the better.”

Zanowick agreed, saying Warrior Weekend “heals hearts, minds and souls” of all parents who lost a soldier.

Credit: Submitted

Credit: Submitted

Then the conversation turned back to his son. When he was born on Dec. 31, 1987, he weighed nine pounds. They named their only son Paul, after his father. But Nanette didn’t want to constantly yell for “Paul” and have two guys answer.

One day, Paul told his wife their baby was “solid as a rock.”

The nickname stuck.

Rocky would be 35 years old today. He probably would still be married to his wife, Ryan Lynn, and raising their son, Uriah.

There was a time when Zanowick thought about his son’s future that was cut short. Where he would be and what he would be doing today.

“I stopped doing that because it puts you in a cycle of emotional distress that isn’t healthy,” he said. “It’s toxic.”

He said people die twice. The day they stop breathing and the last time their name is spoken. The Zanowicks want to make sure people remember their son.

Every year, they host Rocky’s Run that has raised thousands of dollars that benefits local charities.

Toward the end of the interview, Zanowick reached down and held his son’s dog tags tightly.

“Every single day is Memorial Day,” he said.

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