At the Fayetteville National Cemetery -- located on Government Avenue on the south side of Fayetteville -- small, marble headstones stretch out in neat rows, each one telling a story with only a handful of words.
Each story is a record of a life risked -- and sometimes given -- in the name of country.
Through Others’ Eyes
“She founded Bo’s Blessings, which was the first organization in the USA to recycle wreaths from Wreaths Across America for seven years. Bo’s Blessing has retired that event but began a new one, “Honor and Respect”. Honor and Respect pays respect to all veterans buried at the Fayetteville National Cemetery by washing every headstone at least once a year. She continues her efforts for veterans with the Homeless to Home program by assisting veterans with transitional funds, utility deposits, food, shelter and furniture. She was also involved in the organization and implementation of an “unclaimed veterans” burial program. Every veteran should have the honor of having a proper burial. These are just a few examples of Jannie’s profound impact to the lives of veterans in Fayetteville.” — Mayor Lioneld Jordan
“She has definitely committed a lot of her time to the veterans in the area, something that not a lot of people would do — especially as much as she does. I would say probably 60% of her time is spent with different organizations, making sure veterans are taken care of.” — Skip Solomon
“You won’t find a better person as far as I’m concerned. I’ve seen her take a hold of veterans’ hands and walk them through what needed to be done. Sometimes she doesn’t know to do those things, but she learned them along the way. There’s nothing she won’t push through. I’ve kind of been in awe of it for some time.” — Rick McKee
“My husband was in a VA nursing home, and she helped me take care of him, helped me get a little relief every once in a while. One time she was helping him eat and he thought he was visiting her in Chicago — that’s where he was born and raised. He said he wanted a martini and she said, ‘Well, I don’t have the makings for a martini, but if you tell me what to get, I’ll have it the next time I come,’ and he said, ‘You knew I was coming and you still didn’t get the makings! Get a pencil and write it down.’ She said, ‘I’ve got a better idea, I’ll tape it.’ In a way, [watching the video] gives a little jerk to my heart strings but it makes me feel good to know how much he loved her and how much she loved him.” — Naomi Baird
On a bright, cold January day, Jannie Layne stands beside one of the stones, explaining the regulations of a National Cemetery and chatting about the expansion that's under way. The Regional National Cemetery Improvement Corporation (RNCIC), of which Layne is a board member, is donating just under one acre to expand the cemetery. More than 11,000 soldiers are buried here, and the expansion will make room for around 2,000 more full casket gravesites, as well as around 1,000 cremains burials.
Layne spends a lot of time at this cemetery: In addition to the RNCIC, she's also a board member for the Northwest Arkansas Veterans Coalition and the Fayetteville National Cemetery Advisory Committee, as well as the president of the Springdale Veterans Memorial Organization and an advocate for the family council at the Arkansas State Veterans Home at Fayetteville. But even if she wasn't a member of so many veteran-focused organizations, she would be here anyway, because one of these smooth, pale headstones belongs to her son, James Allen Swearingen II, who was known to his family and friends as "Bo." At the bottom of his stone is etched "Beloved Son" -- two words that tell a story of the heartbroken mother left behind when, in April 2010, her 32-year old son and his wife, Lori, were killed in a motorcycle accident.
The couple were coming back from a Combat Vets Motorcycle Association fundraising event in Russellville with three friends and Lori's daughter. They were on U.S. 71 near Winslow -- almost home -- when a truck crossed the center line and ran, head-on, into their motorcycles. Bo and Lori were killed instantly; Lori's daughter, Taylor, and the couple's friend, Keith -- with whom Taylor was riding -- both suffered serious injuries and were airlifted to a hospital.
"It was an accident, nothing more than an accident," says Layne. "Bo was a veteran from the Iraq war, a 12-year Army veteran with the 101st Airborne. He had come home from Iraq and moved in with us. He was wounded from the war, emotionally. He had PTSD. He would clear the house, every night. There were a lot of things that were going on with him, physically and emotionally. So he came home to stay with us. And he met this wonderful lady, Lori."
What does a parent do when faced with the most unspeakable of losses? The stages of grief were familiar to Layne; she had been fascinated with Elisabeth Kubler Ross' book On Death and Dying for years, and it prompted her career in nursing. But Layne went one stage further: Her grief at the end of Bo's life would be the catalyst to start a new life of her own.
Layne is still friends with many of the people she grew up with in Springdale. To hear them tell it, her ability to overcome challenges -- powered by a formidable personality and motivated by passion -- has remained stable over the years. She was always a go-getter.
"She hasn't changed much -- she's always finding something to grab ahold of and running with it," says childhood friend Rick McKee. "When she grabs ahold of something, she doesn't give up on it -- she stays to the very end. As an adult, she's passionate about anything she does -- she won't take it on if she's not passionate."
Layne started her career as a licensed practical nurse, drawn to the profession by her love of Ross' work about how we face death -- our own and others -- and how death affects those left behind. After graduation, her interest in the field led her to work in elder care for a time, but, soon, she had an idea she thought could be big: a company-wide occupational nursing program at Tyson Foods.
"I wrote a proposal and took it into the gentleman who was head of loss control and said, 'Tyson needs this,' and he looked at it and said, 'OK,'" Layne says. "And they hired me, and now there are over 700 nurses [working at Tyson plants] all over the United States. The program was based on 24-hour care: How do you take care of your employee, not just at work but at home? How do you do wellness? It was a really simple thought process, 'Be proactive rather than reactive.'
"So I went to work and worked at three plants every day. I did pre-employment physicals, basic health assessments, and I did all of their workers' comp. And, from that program, we evolved into a full-blown occupational health program. We had safety coordinators added to the plants. We developed ergonomic site placements. We developed an exercise program where you did exercises before you went to work."
Layne was fulfilled in both her professional life and her personal life. She had met husband David at a rodeo dance.
"He saw me from afar," she says, smiling.
She had Bo during an early first marriage, and David had a daughter of his own, almost exactly the same age as Bo. Bo was close to both parents, but particularly close to his mother.
"Bo and I were so close -- I'm sure a lot of mothers say that -- but he would be coming home from leave, and I would go to bed and then get up in the middle of the night. I'd go out, flip the front porch light on, and I'd wait because I knew he was just coming down the street. And sure enough, here he would come. There was just that connection."
So it made sense that, when Bo came home from Iraq, he would move in with Layne and her husband. War had changed him, says Layne, and having a supportive family around him helped him gain his footing. He was doing well -- working with the family businesses, regularly attending church and working on behalf of veterans' causes -- when the accident happened. The news came by phone call.
"When we got the phone call of Bo's death, I see this so vividly, [David] fell down on his knees and threw his face on the floor and prayed to God that it would be taken off of Bo and put on him, just to not let it be true," says Layne, the memory still clearly painful for her.
The couple was devastated for months.
"David and I didn't process it," she says. "We lived in a fog for six months. Later, we would find bills that hadn't been paid, checks that hadn't been deposited, appointments that hadn't been met, things we wouldn't even know about. We grieved every breath and heartbeat for six months. If God didn't control our involuntary movements and breathe for me and make my heart beat, I would've died a long time ago because I couldn't think to do those things. So for six months, we didn't live. My bonus daughter and my grandchildren suffered, because we didn't know how to deal."
Layne was briefly hospitalized with what her doctor called "broken heart syndrome" -- stress-induced cardiomyopathy -- during this period of mourning. She and David did try to manage the overwhelming grief by reaching out for help.
"We went to counseling, we went to a grief support group at the Rolling Hills Baptist Church with Steve Sheely. I went to Christian counseling with other women who had suffered [the same kind of loss]. I would do support groups on Facebook for loss of a child. And David was my grief partner. We would sit out on the back porch, and we would talk about Bo and cry. We didn't sleep. We didn't function. We just got by."
This period of abject grief was broken in the most cruel and inexplicable of ways: The October after Bo's accident, David was diagnosed with glioblastoma, the most aggressive form of brain cancer.
"The doctor said that he felt like it had been there for a while and laid dormant, but the shock of our son and his wife's death triggered it," says Layne. "And after six months of grieving, it set off a series of events that led to his death."
Managing his treatment and care broke Layne out of her fog. She no longer had time to mourn -- she was too busy trying to keep David alive. David, for his part, never lost his sense of faith and optimism.
"David would always say, 'Not "Why us?" or "Why me?"'" says Layne. "'Instead, "Why not me?" Who else can we teach about the blessings of Christ through this? What good can we do from this?"' He always asked, 'Why not me?'"
In March 2011 -- 11 months after Bo's death -- David lost his brave fight with cancer.
Never give up
Now Layne was alone, living in a house that, just a year before, had been filled with the laughter and conversation of a happy family. She tried for a time to keep the family businesses running herself, but the duty was too sad and, she says, she had the feeling that it wasn't what she was supposed to be doing. It took a year or two, but she slowly started feeling as though she was being led towards a mission.
"I had all of this compounded grief that I didn't know how to deal with," she says. "And the best way to deal with it was to tell your story, share your child, do something good for somebody else.
"Bo was a man of faith, and he had re-dedicated his life to Christ after he came home. He was re-baptized and was doing Bible study and going to college. And he said, 'Mama, I want my fellow veterans to know the Lord. I want them to spend eternity with me someday. We lose too many to suicide. There's too many of them that are just lost out there roaming. And I want them to have what I have.' But, he said, 'You can't beat them over the head with the Bible. You have to show them how to be Jesus. And that's what I'm going to do.' So after he died, I thought, 'What can I do?' And I prayed a lot about it. I really feel like this was an answer to not only my prayers but prayers from other people: 'Give back -- you can take care of what he was trying to do.' So we created Bo's Blessings, LUTHAB -- which is 'Love you to heaven and back,' a saying that we have in my family."
"I couldn't see how anyone could stand that much grief in that short a period of time, but she stood like an oak tree and let the wind blow on her and took it -- and pushed through it," says McKee.
For Layne, the goal of Bo's Blessings was to be the manifestation of Bo's determination to help struggling veterans find solid footing. She started out by getting involved with the National Cemetery, but the organization -- and the help it is able to offer -- has only grown since then.
"We do homelessness to home," recites Layne. "We help with transportation, gas, food. We help with the rental deposits and housing furniture. We do the Hero's Haven at the VA hospital. We do Christmas for the VA home residents. Every time you turn around, there's another door opening."
Layne says donations to the nonprofit organization are made by individuals, as well as by various Northwest Arkansas businesses that support the mission.
"We're good stewards of the money we get," she says. "We work very diligently to make sure that we give our resources to those people who need it -- not to keep them in the situation they're currently in, but to help them move out of that situation and stand on their own two feet. We've had some successes this last year: We had a couple of families that are no longer in the system, that are on their own, and we've helped them with rent and utilities and furnishings. And that's what we're trying to do."
The responsibility the organization has taken with the National Cemetery has increased over the years, too. For years, they've been responsible for laying wreaths at each marker for Wreaths Across America, the nationwide effort to recognize the service of deceased armed service members that happens right before Christmas each year. Layne says Bo's Blessings was the first -- and may be the only -- organization that started a recycling program for those wreaths, a painstaking process that requires separating greenery and ribbon from the coiled wire in the (usually) freezing temperatures of January. Bo's Blessings volunteers also wash each of the over 9,000 headstones twice a year, in advance of the Memorial Day and Veterans Day holidays. And, just recently, Layne and Bo's Blessings took on the responsibility of organizing funerals for the unclaimed remains of veterans -- men and women who served their country but died without family or friends to arrange funeral services. On Dec. 12, 2019, four such veterans were laid to rest at a ceremony at the National Cemetery that drew more than 200 community members who came to pay their respects. Layne says she's working with Sen. John Boozman's office to gain access to these veterans' DD Form 214 -- the Certificate of Release or Discharge from Active Duty -- so she can personalize the services and show the most respect possible.
"One of the soldiers that we buried last month, we actually found out things about him at the ceremony that we didn't know beforehand," she says. "He was a golfer and a pool player, and he had a dog. He moved here from upstate and, he had a motor home and all his possessions -- but somebody stole [the motor home], and he was left homeless and had nothing. A gentleman befriended him and gave him a place to live, and he got back on his feet. But as he got older and his health was failing, things took a turn. You know, those are the cases that we want to know before so it's possible to [speak about who this person was at the service.]"
"I was looking for a [veteran service organization] that would help and would have contacts for other support groups, like Honor Guards, who could help us put together a communal service for the veterans," says Cemetery Director Skip Solomon. "When we were doing it in-house, it was taking us away from the customers we have here. [Layne] can reach out to contacts that she's had for years and make sure [the veterans] have a dignified burial."
In addition to Bo's Blessings, Layne also sits on the board of several area veterans organizations. Consider her calendar: Every block is filled in, with neat, small hand writing -- even the weekends. She says she's almost compulsive about making sure that she has something to do every single day.
"I can't give her enough praise for what she does," says McKee. "She sacrifices her own health. I try to keep her focused towards her health ... but she likes to get up, even sick, and go do things for other people. She doesn't do things for herself. If you look through her calendar, everything is for everybody else, nothing for her."
"She has the strongest will and the strongest faith of anyone I know," says Naomi Baird, who has known Layne since she was a teenager. "Nothing can faze her faith. You'd think that, with what she's been through, she would have let down her guard, but she never has. I wish I had the faith that she does. Of course, she spends a lot of time grieving, when no one else knows. People like her do a lot of their grieving in silence."
It might be tempting to look at her activity since Bo's death and assume that she is sprinting as fast as she can in an attempt to outrun her grief. But nothing could be further from the truth: Layne has spent a decade confronting it. Social media has made it easy for her to stay in touch with the men with whom Bo served, something that brings her comfort. "They call me 'Bo Mama'," she says. "That was the hardest thing for me when he died, was thinking, 'Nobody will ever call me 'Mama' again. So they've adopted me." A year after the accident, she took the state troopers who worked the scene out to lunch and brought photos of Bo and Lori to show them -- she thought it would offer closure to the men who had worked such a devastatingly upsetting accident. She even reached out to the man whose truck crossed the center line; he declined to meet with her, something Layne says she completely understands: She thinks he's too upset, still. He's had a hard life. The accident was one more thing in a long line of tragedies that have marred his world. Layne's interpretation of why this man might shrink from making contact with her is kind, generous and, above all, forgiving. She isn't hiding from her grief -- she's taken it and recycled it and found a way for it to help others.
"Bo's death was the worst day of my life, but it was also the beginning of a new life that God wanted me to lead," she says firmly, through tears in her eyes. "When you bury your only child, your life changes, and you can either move forward or stop living. And my son would not have wanted me to stop living. As long as I'm alive, I can tell his story and wave his flag and be his champion -- and people will know him."
NAN Profiles on 02/09/2020
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