Maj. Shawn Campbell was one of 12 Marines killed when two CH-53 helicopters crashed in the ocean near Hawaii on Jan 14, 2016. Photos courtesy Kelli Campbell-Goodnow.
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As with most other nights when her husband flew Marine CH-53E Super Stallions, Kelli Campbell-Goodnow expected him to come home around 2 a.m., and crawl into bed. It was Jan. 14, 2016, and Maj. Shawn Campbell was scheduled to pilot one of two of the big cargo helicopters on a routine training mission off the coast of Oahu, Hawaii.
“That’s when everything changed,” Campbell-Goodnow said.
But Campbell had not arrived when Kelli’s phone rang at about 4 a.m. It was her father calling from Kansas, where it was already 8 a.m., and he was watching TV.
Maj. Shawn Campbell was a CH-53 pilot for his entire 15-year career in the Marine Corps. Photo courtesy Kelli Campbell-Goodnow.
“It was on the news,” Campbell-Goodnow said. Reports weren’t naming a squadron or details, just that two CH-53 helicopters had collided in Hawaii and a search was underway.
“But they knew there was only one squadron of 53s out there,” she said. “They knew that we probably were going to know whoever it was. And so my dad called to make sure Shawn was home.
“He was not, and I knew in that instant.”
Kelli and Shawn had four kids, the oldest 11, the youngest just 2. Their happy plans to raise them together in retirement, just a few years away, were gone. Survival filled the gap.
As a mom of four, she had to prioritize her children.
“From there, you’re facing: Well, now we have to move, and now we have to leave our military community and our friends and our church,” Campbell-Goodnow said. “I homeschooled our kids at the time, and we had a great little community. We loved our house.
“Just everything — literally everything — had to change,” she said.
The Campbells: Tristan, Kate, Kelli, Donovan, Shawn, and Kenna. Photo courtesy Kelli Campbell-Goodnow.
One immediate change was the kids’ school. That’s where she found Folds of Honor. The nonprofit provides scholarships to the families of fallen or disabled service members. Kelli suddenly needed that help when she found a private school that specialized in a homeschool curriculum.
“It wasn’t tuition,” Campbell-Goodnow told Coffee or Die Magazine. “It was hope.”
Shawn and Kelli met at Texas A&M University more than two decades ago. Shawn had not gone directly to college from high school and was older than most students.
“He was a climber-bum and decided that wasn’t going to pay the bills, so he went to school,” Campbell-Goodnow said, laughing. In 2000, a year before graduating, the couple married, and soon after Shawn completed Officer Candidate School.
“We were headed off with the Marine Corps, and he became a pilot and flew CH-53 helicopters,” Campbell-Goodnow said.
Shawn Campbell deployed three times as a CH-53 pilot. Photo courtesy Kelli Campbell-Goodnow.
During his 15-year military career, Shawn deployed three times, and the Campbells bounced around the US, mainly on the East Coast, from North Carolina to Florida, Texas, and Virginia.
In between, the couple had four children, whom they towed from duty station to duty station. Homeschooling, they found, provided a more consistent and predictable life.
Nearing the 15-year mark of Shawn’s career, they couple PCS’d to Marine Corps Base Hawaii.
“We were kind of looking toward retirement,” Campbell-Goodnow said. “We thought we were nearing the end of this, and we were considering where we would settle down when he got out. We probably had one or two duty stations left in us after Hawaii.”
When the Campbells moved in 2014 to Kailua, a beach hotspot with aquamarine waters on the island of Oahu, Campbell-Goodnow said the family was smitten with the vacation destination.
The Campbells in Hawaii. Photo courtesy Kelli Campbell-Goodnow.
“We were there for 18 months — loved it,” she said. “It was amazing, just our favorite duty station.”
Shawn loved his job, too. He transitioned to a leadership position in the safety and maintenance shop at Marine Heavy Helicopter Squadron 463, or HMH-463, known as the Pegasus.
“Shawn had 200 Marines under him in the safety and maintenance shop, and he really cared about them,” Campbell-Goodnow said. “He grew up without a dad and really had a heart for wandering, lost young Marines.”
Because of Shawn’s new position, Campbell-Goodnow had only met many of her husband’s colleagues just before the start of 2016.
“I got to meet Shawn’s co-pilot — the guy sitting next to him — for the first time at the Marine Corps Ball that November,” Campbell-Goodnow said. “We sat together, and I got to know [his wife], and they had a brand-new baby.
“And then the next time I saw her, we were in the base chapel waiting for an update from the Coast Guard,” Campbell-Goodnow said.
Folds of Honor, an Oklahoma-based nonprofit, provides scholarships to the families of service members killed in the line of duty. Photo courtesy Kelli Campbell-Goodnow.
After her father called on that dark morning, Campbell-Goodnow started making phone calls but couldn’t get in touch with anyone at the Marine squadron. After serious incidents where death is known or suspected, military leaders confiscate cell phones so that next of kin don’t find out through a text message or while scrolling through social media.
“It was terrifying,” Campbell-Goodnow said. “Had I not had four children in bed at home, I would have run up to the squadron, but it was like you’re just helpless.”
A few hours later that morning, three Marines, including one of Shawn’s closest friends, showed up on Campbell-Goodnow’s front doorstep.
“We don’t know. We don’t know. We don’t know,” they said. “We’re searching.”
“It was that much more unexpected when you think, We’ve been to war. We’ve been through this. We’re safe now,” Campbell-Goodnow said. “You get complacent, I guess, and think it’s not going to be you.”
A marker on Oahu memorializes the 12 Marines killed in the 2016 crash. Photo courtesy Kelli Campbell-Goodnow.
For five days, Campbell-Goodnow and 11 other families hovered around the base chapel for an update from the Coast Guard.
“At the time, [our kids] were 11, 9, 6, and 2,” Campbell-Goodnow said. “To watch them go through that and for them to have that waiting time where they think their dad’s out there in a lifeboat somewhere. It was just devastating.”
In her gut, Campbell-Goodnow said she knew what news was coming.
“Two helicopters, 12 Marines, and they collided out on the ocean overnight,” she said. “It was sudden and fast, and they were all instantly killed.”
For weeks, the US Coast Guard conducted recovery operations, searching for wreckage and human remains.
“In the end, we were able to receive Shawn’s remains and have a burial,” Campbell-Goodnow said. “Three families did not.”
“At that time, we had been off for Christmas break, and [the kids] were actually supposed to go back and start up the day that it happened, so school never happened,” Campbell-Goodnow said. “And I started to panic, like, What am I going to do? I don't think I can homeschool anymore.”
When Kelli Campbell-Goodnow returned to Kansas with her kids after Shawn's death, they were able to attend a local school with scholarships from Folds of Honor. Photo courtesy Kelli Campbell-Goodnow.
Within two months, the family had left Hawaii for Kansas to move in with Campbell-Goodnow’s parents while she figured out what would come next.
“That’s where Folds of Honor came in,” Campbell-Goodnow said.
Thanks to a friend, Campbell-Goodnow enrolled her kids in a school near her parents that aligned with her homeschooling curriculum and teaching methods.
“It just was this great fit,” Campbell-Goodnow said. “And so, they invited the kids to come and finish out the semester with no grades, no pressure — no tuition, even. Just bring them, put them in school, give them a place to have a routine, and love on them.
“It was a godsend.”
But Campbell-Goodnow said, in the back of her mind, she worried about putting her kids in a school they would only have to leave the following year. If tuition kicked in, she wouldn't be able to afford the private school.
“But the friend that found the school also found Folds of Honor, and she was like, ‘Here, they can finish the year here, and then you can reapply for next year, and you can get scholarships and keep them there,’” Campbell-Goodnow said. “And that's what we did.”
Tristan, Kenna, Kate, and Donovan Campbell, now 18, 16, 13, and 9. Photo courtesy Kelli Campbell-Goodnow.
Folds of Honor is an Oklahoma-based nonprofit organization with more than 30 chapters across the US. Annually, the charity provides thousands of scholarships to a maximum of $5,000 to the family members of fallen and wounded service members and first responders.
“Within a couple of weeks, [the kids] were in school, and I had scholarship applications underway, with my friend helping me, and that actually is what kept us in Kansas City,” Campbell-Goodnow said. “At that point. I was like, ‘Okay, I think we're going to live here, this is our start. And it was kind of from there, like dominoes, you know? Then you find a house and find new friends and a new church, and all those things kind of came after.”
It’s now a little more than seven years since Shawn died and the Campbell family has regrouped.
“We’ve moved forward, but you don’t move on,” Campbell-Goodnow said.
Campbell-Goodnow remarried in 2020, and the Campbell kids — Tristan, Kenna, Kate, and Donovan — are now 18, 16, 13, and 9.
“I call it my second life,” Campbell-Goodnow said. “We have this new, blended family, but Shawn is still a part of it, and it’s just been really beautiful to carry him with us forward in a healthy way, and the kids are doing the same now, and Folds of Honor has been a huge part of that.”
Five years ago, Campbell-Goodnow started telling her story at events around the country on behalf of Folds of Honor.
“It’s really humbling,” she said. “No. 1: I get to tell people thank you, and that means a lot to me. And I get to tell them, ‘This is what you’re doing.’ Look at my son — I’m so proud of him, and he would not be where he is without Folds.”
She said Tristan, her oldest, has recently been applying for college, which Folds of Honor will help fund.
The Campbells. Photo courtesy Kelli Campbell-Goodnow.
“I mean, it makes me cry to think about it. My son wrote in one of his college essays something to the effect of, 'My dad died so that I could do this,'” Campbell-Goodnow said, holding back tears.
“I knew I wasn’t going to be able to get that out, but he was like, ‘My dad did this job, and he died so that I could be in a country where I have the freedom to work hard toward what I want,’” she said. “And that just makes me so proud.”
A year after she started speaking for the nonprofit organization, Campbell-Goodnow started working at Folds of Honor as a corporate impact officer, helping fundraise.
“I get to turn around and do the hard work raising the money and stewarding it and running events so that we can raise even more and help other families like mine,” Campbell-Goodnow said. “Because I know what it means.”
“And then I became a recipient this year. I went back to school to grad school, and I started an Executive MBA program. So super humbling that Folds, even as an employee, and even after all they’ve done for my kids, it’s kind of crazy for me to think they’ve actually awarded me a scholarship," Campbell-Goodnow said.
“So I’m in school now, too.”
Black Rifle Coffee Company, which owns Coffee or Die Magazine, is a sponsor of the Triple 7 Expedition.
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Jenna Biter is a staff writer at Coffee or Die Magazine. She has a master’s degree in national security and is a Russian language student. When she’s not writing, Jenna can be found reading classics, running, or learning new things, like the constellations in the night sky. Her husband is on active duty in the US military. Know a good story about national security or the military? Email Jenna.
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