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Border Patrol widow honored for 'crazy courage' that helped others heal

Samantha Hope poses with, from left, Border Patrol Foundation President Ron Colburn, acting Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Thomas J. Winkowski and Border Patrol Chief Michael J. Fisher, after receiving an award from the foundation. (Cronkite News Service photo by Chad Garland)

WASHINGTON -- The news on that September morning in 2010 left Samantha Hope "almost broken" -- a drunken driver had killed her husband, Border Patrol Agent Michael V. Gallagher, while he was on duty in southern Arizona.

"They said, ‘Your husband's been killed,' and I felt like I left my body," she said.

But she soon began turning that grief into something that would help others. A journal about her experiences became a "survival guide" for young widows. That was followed by speaking engagements around the country, counseling other widows seeking advice and working with the Border Patrol Foundation to help support fallen officers' families.

Her work reached its "pinnacle" Tuesday night at the foundation's annual dinner in Washington, where the Casa Grande resident received the education and service award -- and a standing ovation from the crowd of about 200 -- for her work with the organization.

"I could not be more proud of my big sister," said Megan Appleby.

Appleby, who served in the Army with Gallagher and introduced him to her older sister at a 2005 party, said the most important thing for her sister over the three years since the accident has been helping others.

"It's a big deal to have that recognized," Appleby said of Tuesday's award.

Michael and Samantha married in 2006, and in 2008 he joined Border Patrol, moving the family to Casa Grande. He had just completed his two-year probationary period with the agency and was preparing to move from night to day shifts in September 2010. They were even planning a three-week vacation to visit family.

And then, at about 9:15 a.m. Sept. 2, as Gallagher was finishing his shift on the Tohono O'odham Reservation, a drunken driver ran a stop sign and hit the Ford F250 he was driving, overturning the truck and throwing him from the vehicle. He died at the scene.

"That he was killed by a drunk driver was really hard for me, because there were so many other risks of being a Border Patrol agent, like getting shot," Hope said this week. "Why would he have to get killed by a drunk driver?"

Hope began keeping journals in the months after her husband's death. Partly an account of her struggles to deal with the death and partly a guide for other young widows in similar situations, they grew into a book, "Crazy Courage."

"I think she used it maybe as an element of healing for herself," said JJ Freyermuth, the book's editor.

Freyermuth said she met Hope in October 2010 and was impressed with her "clarity of thought" about finding some good from the tragedy. Later, at a writing workshop Freyermuth taught, Hope began sharing her journals with the class. That's when Freyermuth suggested she turn the project into a book.

"She gained a lot of strength from knowing that her writing wasn't just for self-reflection, it wasn't just for self-healing (but was) something that she was really hoping would serve other people," Freyermuth said. "As a writer, she became kind of a champion for me, too."

The book recounts Hope's personal experiences, but it is also broken into sections with bullet points of advice at the end of each. It was a way to make things more digestible for readers who may be too stunned by grief to read the book in its entirety, Hope said.

But Erica Aguilar, whose husband Senior Patrol Agent Luis A. Aguilar was killed on duty in the Yuma Sector in 2008, said she read the book "front to back."

"I don't know how she did it," Aguilar said. "I'm still overwhelmed with grief sometimes and for her to be able to grieve, write and raise her family and take care of herself and publish a book -- remarkable strength."

The book was published in April 2012 when Hope, who has since remarried, went by Samantha Light-Gallagher. She said the title comes from the crazy courage "that's deep inside of you to push through all of the pain and grief that you might be feeling at any given moment."

"It's a step up from courage," she said.

Hope still lives in Casa Grande with her sons, Quincy, 11, and Rhyan, 6. After the book was published, she began speaking around the country, conducting training events, blogging and connecting to other widows through Facebook.

Border Patrol Foundation President Ron Colburn said "Crazy Courage" has touched surviving spouses of those killed in the military and with other law enforcement agencies, in addition to the Border Patrol.

"I hadn't thought about the Marines, the Air Force, all of them," Colburn said. "Her book was being read all over."

Colburn praised Hope's volunteer work with the foundation to support the fallen and injured Border Patrol agents' families, some of whom were at Tuesday's event.

"We stepped up to support them (the surviving spouses)," Colburn said. "We were here to give them courage and strength in their time of need and what we didn't expect is for them to give us that kind of encouragement -- they're a blessing."

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