JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) — We often hear that Memorial Day is the “unofficial start to summer”, but it is a much more somber occasion for many families.

Memorial Day was established to mourn the U.S. military personnel who have died while serving in the United States armed forces. Gold Star Families across the country will spend the day honoring the lives of their loved ones who lost their lives serving the nation.

If you’ve passed the Boones Creek Interchange on I-26 in the past year, you may have noticed a name. In June 2021, the interchanged was named in honor of Senior Airman Ben Daniel White. The 2004 graduate of Science Hill and former ETSU student joined the United State Air Force as a pararescueman. He served with the 48th Rescue Squadron helping with recovery and medical treatment in warzones.

“Its primary objective is combat search and rescue,” said Brenda Shelton, White’s mom. “That is their mission. Their motto is these things we do that others may live.”

The family is no stranger to military service. Shelton’s father served in the Army and White’s paternal grandfather served in the Navy. She said when White found out about pararescueman his heart was set on becoming one. After 35 months of training and several setbacks, he accomplished his dream and was deployed to Afghanistan.

White was just 6 weeks into his first deployment when was killed on June 9, 2010 during a mission. The rotor was shot out of the helicopter he was on while it was providing air cover for another helicopter rescuing a wounded marine. Shelton said 5 of the 7 onboard died.

During his 6 weeks of deployment, Shelton said he flew 90 sorties (a dispatch of one military unit), rescuing a minimum of 90 people.

Memorial Day, just like every other, White’s mother will work to preserve his memory.

“[He was] filled with life,” said Shelton. “Bigger than life, I guess I should say. His smile lit up a room.”

Shelton said there are little things in life that constantly remind her of her son on a daily basis. The call sign of the helicopter he served on was 66. She said she notes when she sees that in life. Even the marking on his grave ends in 66. His birthday is another number she loves to see.

“When I got my plate, my Gold Star plate on my other vehicle, she went and got the plate and brought it and put it on the counter, I started crying,” said Shelton. “Pure chance, or God wink or whatever. It was 1016 I had my son’s birthday on my other vehicle as a permanent plate. 10/16 is his birthday.”

As many people barbecue and enjoy a day off, Shelton wants people to remember why we recognize Memorial Day.

“My child and the others gave their lives for us to be able to do that, to have that freedom, and to have that opportunity to pursue the life that we choose to,” said Shelton.

Until recently, Shelton served as the President of the Gold Star Family Tennessee Chapter, working to preserve the memories of all Tennessee military members who have lost their lives in the line of duty.

“A man dies twice, the first time when his breath leaves his body and the second time when no one speaks his name any longer,” said Shelton. “Pretty much any mom I know or that I’m associated with that’s that’s the goal is to make sure their child and their service and their sacrifice are never forgotten.”