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‘My way of giving back:’ MVAA employee honors late husband, Iraq War veteran through her work
January 23, 2024
The “I Am a Veteran” campaign captures the stories of Michigan veterans and their dependents. For one surviving spouse, her work in veteran advocacy is a way of honoring her late husband, an Army veteran. Here is her story.
Kate Preston has two words tattooed on the inside of her wrist: “Love, Darren.”
“It’s in his handwriting,” Preston says. “It was from the first letter he wrote me when he went to bootcamp.”
She touches the ink, recalling memories of her husband who passed away in October 2015. Army Sgt. Darren Preston was a carpenter in the 10th Special Forces Group (Airborne) out of Fort Carson, Colorado. He joined the Army in 2005, a few years after high school.
“We were high school sweethearts,” Preston says, smiling. “We met at Eaton Rapids High School.”
Darren would deploy twice to Iraq, in 2006 and 2007—a time of violent conflict and heavy U.S. casualties in the war-torn country. He was then sent to Germany in 2008.
“We got married in Vegas right before he left for Germany,” Preston says. “He got back two days before our son Trevor was born.”
Darren got out of the Army and returned home to Eaton Rapids with his wife and son. The family grew in 2013 with the birth of their daughter, Taylor. While life appeared great on the outside, on the inside Darren was struggling. He wouldn’t talk about what he had experienced in Iraq.
“I remember it being a hard transition,” Preston explains. “I’d have to be super careful about how I woke him up because it would startle him. There were times he would have night terrors that would wake him up in the night.”
“I remember specifically one time he woke up in the middle of the night and ran straight out the front door,” she continues. “He was having a nightmare, like maybe he was back over there and trying to get away or something.”
‘I knew something was wrong’
Darren would deal with physical pain from his deployments, injuries to his back and ankle, along with PTSD. He sought treatment from a VA doctor, who would often switch medications and dosages to try to find something that would work.
“He wanted to go to the VA,” Preston says. “He felt that they would understand the things he went through, and there’s some truth to that. Because veterans want to talk to veterans or people that understand them.”
But ultimately, the combination of medications led to his death. In 2015, on the morning of the day the family was set to move into their new home, Kate found her husband unresponsive in the living room. It was the day before her birthday.
“He and my son were camping out in the living room, and my daughter and I were sleeping in the bedroom,” Preston recalls. “I got up to make coffee and Darren was sleeping with his back to me. When I walked around to wake him up, I noticed right away that he had blood coming out of his nose and I grabbed a hold of him. And he was cold. I screamed because I knew something was wrong. I knew he was dead.”
Months later, an autopsy determined it was an accidental overdose due to a combination of Zoloft and extended-release morphine.
“I struggled with that for a long time and didn't tell people because I didn't want them to think he was an addict,” Preston says. “I knew he struggled with PTSD, but a lot of people didn’t. On the outside he seemed totally normal and happy.”
‘I see how far we’ve come’
It took Kate and her family a long time to cope with Darren’s death. The family sought help from Ele’s Place in Lansing, a healing center for grieving children and their families. At Eles Place, Kate met with other widows, one of whom is her best friend today.
“Eight years later, I’m a lot better,” Preston says. “It never goes away, there’s always days where something will trigger you and set you back, but it’s very few and far between now. In the beginning, I couldn’t see past the day ahead of me. My 7-year-old would be getting me up to go to work. Now on the 8-year anniversary, I see how far we’ve come.”
As Kate and her family healed, she started to look for ways she could honor her late husband and give back to veterans. She started working at the Michigan Veterans Affairs Agency in 2022 as a grants specialist, where she manages programming and monitors grant compliance for the agency.
“It wasn’t until I came to the MVAA that I felt like I was among people that understood what I’ve been through and wouldn’t judge me for telling my story,” Preston says.
“When you’re on the outside, you think no one cares, but then being here and seeing how much we do and how involved everyone in our agency is in their work and the passion behind it, that helped me let go of that anger to see people do care. I want veterans to know that there are people within our agency that have stories similar to theirs and want to help them.”
As Kate learned with her husband, she knows veterans want to seek out other veterans or someone who understands what they’ve been through. She hopes veterans will read her story and be able to connect with what she’s experienced.
“I can’t do it alone,” Preston says. “This job is just my way of feeling like I’m doing something to give back to or to help other families, so Darren’s death wasn’t in vain.”
If you or your family are in need of support, contact the Michigan Veteran Resource Service Center at 1-800-MICH-VET to get connected to resources and benefits.