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Red Cross helps connect, comfort two marine moms
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Deborah Griffith MacSwain
December 28, 2006

Lance Corporals Eric Herzberg and Sebastian Ploszaj graduated from their respective high schools in 2005, and both joined the Marines with dreams of attending college one day.

Corporal Herzberg from Severna Park in Maryland and Corporal Plosjai from Brooklyn, New York, met in boot camp and became best friends. Their mothers, Mrs. Gina Barnhurst, and Mrs. Gabriella Ploszaj, met through telephone conversations, and the two marine moms also became fast friends.

Before deploying to Iraq, the young soldiers visited each others’ families. When Corporal Herzberg visited the Ploszajs’ home, it was his first time in New York City.

“Sebastian took Eric everywhere sightseeing,” recalled Mrs. Ploszaj, a Polish immigrant. “We went to a Polish show – both men in their uniforms. They were treated so well with respect, and Eric was dancing and having so much fun. He was a quiet boy and a pleasure to have as a guest – always thanking me,” she added.

Her son Sebastian visited with Herzberg’s family in Maryland and had an equally good time.

Then, on July 14, 2019, the best friends who talked about going into management together in some way, deployed to Iraq with their unit.

“They had big plans for the future. I sent them books on management they had ordered,” said Mrs. Ploszaj.

After their sons had left for Iraq, the two mothers kept in touch. Their phone calls were a way to share the feelings and concerns that mothers have when their children go off to war, and they formed a strong friendship even though they’d never met face-to-face.

“Gabriella, she was wonderful – it was amazing the bond we had even though we never met,” said Mrs. Barnhurst.

In late October, young Corporal Herzberg was killed in Iraq. Not long after the military had notified his family of the corporal’s death, his friend Corporal Ploszaj called his own mother. So sad over the loss of his close friend, relayed Mrs. Ploszaj, he pled with her to find a way to attend the funeral.

“He had lost a brother,” she said. “There was a very big pain for me – like a death in my own family.”

Almost at the same time, Kevin Burr, the Emergency Services Director for the Central Maryland chapter of the American Red Cross, read Corporal Herzberg’s death notice in the local newspaper. Burr and fellow Red Cross worker Marcos Costillo, both retired military, knew firsthand what it was like to lose a comrade in arms. As members of the chapter’s Armed Forces Emergency Services staff, they have made it a practice to reach out to the next of kin of local fallen service members to offer condolences and provide information about any Red Cross services available to them.

Burr learned through the series of calls that the family wanted another marine’s mom to attend Corporal Herzberg’s funeral, but she lacked the financial means. At the time, Mrs. Ploszaj was unemployed and could not afford the trip. Although there is not a Red Cross program or service that covers such a request from a non-family member, Burr felt strong that there had to be a way to help these two families connect.

The chapter worked to locate funds to help Mrs. Ploszaj travel to Maryland and attend the funeral at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia. Burr made all the arrangements himself and notified the Herzbergs that their close family friend would be able to attend. Mrs. Ploszaj was so appreciative of the Red Cross and Burr, who she said “prepared everything.”

Having made all the arrangements, Burr double checked to make sure Mrs. Ploszaj’s trip to Maryland went smoothly. He also decided to personally deliver official Red Cross condolences to the families, attending the visitation.

“I felt like I needed to go and see Corporal Herzberg’s mother,” he said. “As I went through the funeral home doors, I was immediately grabbed by family and friends and thanked over and over for our Red Cross help – it was a very emotional and humbling experience.”

Burr believes that the services the Red Cross provides to families and members of the U.S. Armed Forces are an important component of the organization.

“The two mothers were sitting together – we had been able to bring them together,” Burr said. “The Red Cross helps people, and it is rewarding to know we can do something valuable.”

The two moms remain close and talk on the phone all the time; they grieve for one son and worry about the other. Mrs. Ploszaj and her younger son joined Mrs. Barnhurst and her family for Thanksgiving. The families set a place at the table for Corporal Herzberg with an American flag and candle.

“My son, he was a beautiful person. People picture a Marine as a tough rugged person; that was totally not what Eric was like. He was sensitive, caring, generous and a team player,” said Mrs. Barnhurst, who found “great comfort” in the outreach of the Central Maryland chapter of the Red Cross.

“The Red Cross, it was so kind of them to even call,” she said. “They handled everything so professionally and [with such] caring…I can’t say enough good things.”

To learn more about American Red Cross Armed Forces Emergency Services, visit the “Military Members and Family” section on RedCross.org or contact your local Red Cross chapter.

The American Red Cross is not a government agency. We rely on the assistance of caring supporters like you to deliver our critical services. You can support U.S. military members and their families through the American Red Cross as we provide assistance and comfort. Your gift will support the nationally coordinated Red Cross services provided to military families across the country and to American service men and women located throughout the world. Please make a financial donation to Armed Forces Emergency Services by calling 1-800-RED CROSS or 1-800-257-7575 (Spanish). Contributions may be sent to the American Red Cross Armed Forces Emergency Services, P.O. Box 91820, Washington, DC 20090. Internet users can make a secure online contribution by visiting www.redcross.org.

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