About 30 miles west of Baghdad and 15 miles south of Fallujah, the Euphrates River jogs sharply to the south and back again to the north, creating a hairpin bend in the river’s course. The land cradled between the two sections of one river is green, contrasted to the shades of brown that make up the desert nearby. The irrigated fields are crisscrossed by dirt tracks and a larger road follows the river a few hundred feet from the bank.
It was here, just past a grove of palm trees, that an improvised explosive device (IED) took Aaron Allen’s life on Nov. 14, 2008. He was 24, on his second tour of duty in Iraq and weeks away from the end of his enlistment.
On that day, Allen was the only person in his squad to die, though others were wounded. They escaped with their lives, but the blast sent shockwaves that traveled around the world and rocked the small community where Allen grew up. Allen was the first graduate of Santa Ynez Valley Union High School to die serving in the War on Terror. He remains the only graduate to die in combat operations in that war.
Now, more than two years after his death, philanthropic work done in Allen’s name has appeared across the Valley. The first signs that the young Marine’s death had deeply impacted the community came shortly after his body was returned to the United Sates. A convoy met Allen’s body at the airport and followed it back to Santa Ynez. In the days that followed, hundreds of people attended Allen’s memorial service and lined the streets as his hearse passed by.
His mother, Cathy Allen, remembered a striking image from that day: “A lady got out of her car and saluted, and it will always stick in my mind. There were faces there that I can never forget.” Solvang Councilwoman Joan Jamieson also recalled the community support surrounding his funeral.
“People were standing out in their driveways with flags and at the service, the Mission was just packed.” She said the vigil for Allen continued even after the memorial service was cut short by a lightning strike and small fire in Mission Santa Inez. “As we left the mission, people just pulled off to the side of the road and got out of their cars to watch him pass. Seeing the amount of people who came was very touching; it shows the community’s strength and love for its young people.”
Allen attended Jonata School in Buellton and after his death, a group of teachers rallied together to raise funds to plant an oak tree in his memory. That tree now grows in the sculpture garden on Buellton’s Avenue of Flags.
After Allen’s death, his friend Sean Foy decided to honor his memory by starting a scholarship in Allen’s name. The scholarship benefited kids playing youth football by helping to pay for some of the costs. “In his heart, Sean knew Aaron loved football,” said Cathy. And when Allen’s sister Amy Allen had a son, he was named Aaron after his uncle.
Aaron planned on attending the fire academy at Allan Hancock College when he returned from the Marines. He never got that chance but a group of family friends thought his desire to serve the community should be honored. In his name, they set up the Aaron Allen Endowment through the Allan Hancock College Foundation.
Jamieson and her husband, David, along with Chris Neilson, Dave Smith and Jeff McKeone set out to raise the $10,000 needed to start an endowment with the Hancock Foundation. They called on the community to help raise the money for the endowment and offered an invitation to a party in memory of Allen for anyone who donated $100. The group hoped to double the amount needed by raising $20,000 – but in less than three months they were already pushing the $30,000 mark. Donations came from about 100 individuals and organizations in the Valley and North County. Jamieson said gifts to the endowment ranged from $5 to $5,000 and didn’t stop at the party. “That $30,000 is there, and it makes the money so we can give out scholarships. In the future we may want to do more, but I’m hopeful that the endowment is here long after we are gone,” she said.
Among the large donors to the endowment were the Firestone family and the Chumash Foundation. But money didn’t stem from large sources alone. “A lot of it came from local Marines and some of his classmates,” said Jamieson. She even recalled a child walking up and giving money toward the scholarships.
The endowment targets Santa Ynez High graduates and Marines who have completed the fire academy at Hancock College. The foundation has given out four scholarships since its founding, and the money helps to pay for the gear firefighters need to start their careers. “I think Aaron would be delighted. Firefighting is a very honorable profession. You are saving lives, like Aaron did for his friends,” said Jamieson.
Work in Allen’s name even caught the attention of the Santa Maria-based group Celebrate Philanthropy!, which honored the quintet behind the endowment at a recent luncheon along with other groups working to promote philanthropy on the Central Coast.
Battlefield Cross is Raised
Perhaps the most vivid and engaging testament to the community outpouring following Allen’s death is the memorial that was unveiled on Veterans Day in Buellton. Only three days before the second anniversary of his death, a tearful Cathy and Amy pulled back a shroud that covered what is commonly referred to as a battlefield cross.
The memorial depicts a soldier’s boots, gun and helmet standing on a block that bares a plaque commemorating Allen. The design for the statue was inspired by an actual battlefield cross Cathy saw on a visit to Camp Pendleton.
“When his unit came in from Iraq, we were invited down there. There was a real battlefield cross there in honor of Aaron. To see each company go through and pay their respects was moving, and to see the city do the same touches my heart,” she said. “I’ve been looking at this statue since his death. I knew it was what I wanted to do. Now I can enjoy it any time I want by walking two blocks, and I know he will never be forgotten.”
Money for a memorial was in the process of being raised almost immediately after Allen died. Family friend John Bull, whose son Brian is also a Marine, opened a foundation at a local bank for Allen. Almost all of the $4,000 needed for the memorial was raised by the family and came from that foundation. The city of Buellton also contributed to the memorial by purchasing the plaque on the front and providing the location on Avenue of Flags.
When asked what her son would think of the work done in his name, Cathy said, “He would be so proud – humbled but proud and maybe a little surprised, too.” She thanked the community for their response and gifts. “Aaron lit up a room, people admired him and his sacrifice, and I think it shows in the response. It was overwhelming, I couldn’t believe it.”