NEWS | June 13, 2021

SOS Riverboat Cruise returns

By Sgt. 1st Class Benjamin Crane, Kentucky National Guard Public Affairs

After canceling the event last year due to the pandemic, the Survivors Outreach Services Riverboat Cruise welcomed back gold star families for a riverboat ride on the Ohio River June 13.

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About 300 friends and family members from five states enjoyed the cruise along with a meal, music, and fun hosted by Northern Kentucky’s B&B Riverboats. The day is designed to recognize the surviving family members of military service members who have given their lives to defend our nation.

The children of those families are the one who take center stage as the planners of the event cater to them. There was plenty to enjoy, from face painters and clowns making animal balloons to ice cream and fidget spinners that light up.

“We're getting families together that have been through something that not everyone has gone through,” said Jim Stinnett, Survivor Outreach Services coordinator. “I've never lost a loved one in a combat situation, and these folks have. That's why they enjoy coming and knowing they're going to meet other people with shared experiences. When we host an event like this, we want the families to come in, be uplifted and happy.”

Attendees saw happiness on the faces of those around them as they milled around the three levels of the Belle of Cincinnati.

A large smile on Krista Williams’ face and those of her children disguised the pain of losing a husband and father. Army Staff Sgt. Wesley Williams was killed in action while deployed to Afghanistan in 2012.

“It’s been wonderful being here," said Williams. "This is like a second family of people who are in similar situations as us; people who understand. And you don't have to explain it to them. They just know. They've been through it on some level. And just doing stuff like this is so much fun with the kids.”

“It gives them a chance to connect with other kids that are going through maybe the same things that they've been through, and it's just good for them," she added. “I don't know what it's like to lose a parent, but they can make the connection with these other kids who are in the same situation with them.”

Krista was pregnant with Valerie, 7, when Wesley passed.

Valerie never met her dad, but she lights up when talking about him and the many pictures and videos she has to help her know him.

When asked about her favorite part of the day, Valerie quickly answered with a grin, “getting your face painted."

Valerie and her sister, Faith, have come to these events with their mother for the past six years to build a lasting support group.

“We get to see [our support group], and some of them have become like grandparents to my kids. We’ve become one big family,” said Krista.

Vicki Johnston and her husband, Raymond, drove from Owensboro to attend the cruise. Their son, Army Sgt. Michael Johnston, was killed in Afghanistan thirteen years ago.

“The riverboat event means a lot to me,” said Vickie. “It's about walking about and seeing the others that are here. It really makes us think about our son, and we never want to forget him or his memories.”

Vickie went on to talk about how much her son liked baseball and how willing he was to help others, which is how Michael gave his life. As a volunteer, Michael deployed to Afghanistan in place of a fellow Soldier who had needed to go home and be with his family.

“There are good things I think about, too,” added Vickie. "That’s why I like this kind of event. This is about him and the things he had done for other people. There is so much I think about today, and seeing you all (others in uniform) reminds me of Michael since he was in the Army.”

Attendees walked around the boat to join in friendly and meaningful conversation and watched children playing and people laughing. Others chose to sit quietly and reflect thoughts toward their loved ones while looking outward toward the passing shore.

For Jenny Crupper, thinking about her son’s death is not something she wanted to do, but she understood how helpful it was to do so.

Her son, Staff Sgt. Joshua T. Crupper, served the Army as an active duty Soldier overseas and then as a recruiter.

“He died in a strange accident two years ago," said Jenny. "He made it through a yearlong deployment in Afghanistan and nine months in Africa. He came home and was starting a new job as a recruiter. He was about to run his own office in Newport before he passed. I don't like to think about it, but I know I need to."

Jenny also mentioned that she finds support through events like the Ohio Riverboat Cruise and the other events SOS has coordinated.

Throughout the year, the SOS sponsors and organizes numerous fun-filled events. Most notably, they coordinate a day at the races at Churchill Downs, an afternoon at Lexington's Kentucky Horse Park, and an evening of baseball at the Louisville Bats baseball stadium.

The SOS team is composed of coordinators from both National Guard and Active Duty Survivor Outreach Services, and this weekend marked the seventh year that B&B Riverboats has sponsored the event to support Gold Star Families.