A National Guard couple is shining a light this Memorial Day on fallen Army Special Operations soldiers to ensure those who paid the ultimate price are not forgotten.
Army Chief Warrant Officer 2 Michael Gomolka and his wife, Samantha, are co-founders of the Project 33 Memorial Foundation. They formed the nonprofit in 2018 to honor Special Operations soldiers who have died in action since Sept. 11, 2001.
Gomolka served as an Army Ranger from 2000 to 2004 before transitioning to the National Guard, where he has remained on full-time duty as a Special Operations soldier. He currently is assigned to the 2nd Battalion, 19th Special Forces Group (Airborne) of the West Virginia National Guard, but lives in Hamburg, New York.
As his list of friends killed in the line of duty grew, Gomolka decided to honor their memory on Memorial Day 2017. He told Samantha he was going to run in body armor carrying a flag through their hometown and finish at the local brewery, where he would hoist a beer in his Ranger buddies’ honor.
Samantha told Michael to think bigger.
“She was the one that said people are going to want to do this with you,” Michael said. “This is going to be big. You should open this up to everybody.”
Project 33’s 6.8-mile Memorial Day Run rapidly has grown beyond the 40 people who joined Michael on his inaugural run. Virtual runs now take place on Memorial Day in several states, raising money for the Project 33 Memorial Foundation and honoring that year’s soldier.
“People showing up by word of social media and bringing their lawn chairs on the side of the road and having people cheer is amazing,” Samantha said. “You say it’s not possible to run seven miles with goosebumps and tears in your eyes and I assure the naysayers it absolutely is. It is such an emotional experience.”
This year’s Memorial Day run will honor Master Sgt. Nicholas Sheperty, 36, a 2/19 SFG soldier and Virginia native who died last April in a military freefall operation. Previous honorees were Army Ranger Spc. Jonn J. Edmunds and Spc. Kristofer T. Stoneisfer of the 34th Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment. Both men were killed in action on Oct. 19, 2001, when their helicopter crashed in Pakistan.
Both Michael and Samantha serve on the Project 33 board, with Michael as president and Samantha as secretary. Michael credits Project 33’s board members with being the organization’s problem-solving “backbone” and the embodiment of its core values: Represent the fallen with dignity and never bring discredit to the families of those they honor. Maintain financial transparency.
“If you don’t let people know where the money is going and show proof of that, especially in the Special Operations community, they will not support you. You have one chance to get it right,” Michael said of the financial side of running a military nonprofit.
Michael said he anticipates hanging up his uniform for the last time in the next two to three years. Until he transitions to civilian life on 17-acres that will become “Old Man Gomolka’s Christmas Tree Farm,” the couple’s ambitions for Project 33 will remain squarely focused on each year’s honoree.
“When we fundraise for the Soldier of the Year, the family’s appreciative of the money,” Samantha said. “But the comments always go back to ‘Thank you for saying his name. Thank you for letting others know.’”
Visit https://www.project33foundation.org to learn more about the organization’s mission and how you can get involved.
* All images by Jessica Ahrens Photography