Before the officers stepped inside her home to say her Army pilot husband was dead in a training accident, Kryste Buoniconti had a thought she could not bear to speak.
Losing her husband, Chief Warrant Officer 3 Frank Buoniconti, meant she would have to give up Hunter, the HIV-positive baby adopted by the couple just a few months earlier.
Already she knew those responsibilities would overwhelm her while caring for their three biological children, ages 2 through 10, at their home in DuPont.
Already she knew keeping little Hunter would be unfair to them all.
Before Frank’s death, “We were looking at starting an unknown phase of life,” she said, “but it was fine because there were two of us.”
One parent, however, could not do it alone.
They dreamed of caring for baby Hunter and one day opening their home to more children. But the dream slipped through their hands just as they were starting to live it.
Frank Buoniconti and three other pilots died Dec. 12, 2011, in a helicopter collision at Joint Base Lewis-McChord.
His passion for orphans and reaching out to people in need lives on in a new organization that Kryste launched in his memory. The group, Live Your Love Loud, gives grants to military families to offset the five-figure costs they often incur while adopting children.
Since September, it has delivered three grants of $2,000 or more. Kryste wants to grow the organization until it can distribute at least one grant every month.
BUILDING A FAMILY
These days, Kryste’s home in DuPont is full of the sounds of three growing children.
Her eldest, Zoe, now 12, is a thoughtful girl on the cusp of middle school.
Ronin, 8, takes big-league swings with his youth baseball team.
Liam, 4, is the most rambunctious, crashing around the house as if he’s invulnerable to bruises.
Kryste kept the family in the South Sound after Frank’s death even though they have roots in Colorado. She wanted to minimize the changes for her children. The Army already had moved them three times in the year before the accident.
Kryste and Frank were high school sweethearts. He went off to the Army after graduating a couple of years ahead of her. They married when she turned 18.
They were a playful couple who shared a lifelong calling to adopt. “We just had a heart for orphans,” she said.
They retained that interest as their family grew and Frank’s career took him to South Korea, Iraq and Afghanistan.
They felt steady enough after Frank’s last tour in Afghanistan in 2010 to get serious about adopting, but assumed it would take two years or more.
Their plans hastened when an adoption agency familiar with the Buonicontis’ wishes called them with an urgent request for help with 15-month-old Hunter.
Kryste and Frank didn’t think twice. On Aug. 1, they brought Hunter from Myrtle Beach, S.C., to their home at Fort Irwin, in Southern California.
As the weeks passed, they found Hunter’s condition, which was aggravated by cerebral palsy and brain damage, to be worse than they expected.
“This was a child that probably was never going to leave our care,” Kryste said.
Fort Irwin is a remote Army post without the medical resources the family needed for Hunter. The Army moved them to Lewis-McChord two months later.
Hunter would get better care at Madigan Army Medical Center, and the Army could use Frank’s experience in its expanding helicopter units in the base’s newly established 16th Combat Aviation Brigade.
They formally adopted Hunter on Dec. 1. They were now the family the Buonicontis had always wanted.
Over the next few days, Kryste remembers Frank calling home and telling her to look outside to catch him flying a Kiowa helicopter. She felt comforted when she saw him pass overhead.
The family went on a trip to cut a Christmas tree on Dec. 11. It was a soggy adventure, and Frank hacked away at an evergreen for 45 minutes before conquering it with a heaving shove.
The 36-year-old pilot died the next day when two Kiowa helicopters crashed on a routine Lewis-McChord training route. An investigation found the contributing causes to be communication dark spots and another pilot’s error.
In those dark days, love started pouring in from friends and strangers in the international adoption community. They instantly raised tens of thousands of dollars to help the family pay the remaining fees they incurred adopting Hunter; all told, it cost around $40,000.
Right then, Kryste sensed she would one day put her efforts into an organization that would help military families adopt.
Deployments and frequent moves give service members distinct challenges in adopting, she said. If all goes well, Live Your Love Loud will take away some of that stress.
For her family, “it should not have taken him dying to pay off the adoption,” she said.
Kryste would not admit out loud for a month after the accident that she could not give Hunter all the care he needed while also raising Zoe, Ronin and Liam.
Another family who knew about the Buonicontis’ story stepped forward to take him in that spring. Kryste stays in touch with Hunter, whose health has improved but remains precarious.
She said her decision to relinquish her role as adoptive mother was as hard as losing Frank. Hunter was new to the family, but he was already a little brother to his siblings.
“That was the most unfair part of the whole thing,” she said. “I still struggle with that decision even though I know it was right for everyone.”
TAKING BACK THE 12TH
She started pulling herself out of the depths of her grief last August when she declared she wanted to “take back the 12th.”
Kryste had seen each month-by-month anniversary after Dec. 12 approach with an “impending sense of doom.”
Last August, she used the 12th to promote a fundraiser that pulled in $3,500 to help the Christian organization Ekubo Ministries buy formula milk for its work in Uganda. It exceeded her goal by $2,000.
In the following months, Kryste would focus on Live Your Love Loud, her adoption organization.
Maj. Joel Blaschke and Jennifer Blaschke of Fort Bragg, N.C., received the nonprofit’s second grant early this year. It helped them chip away at the $38,000 they spent adopting now 18-month-old Xavi, a Ugandan orphan.
The money came just as the family adopted another child near their home in North Carolina who had lost his parents. Jennifer Blaschke said she had Kryste on her mind when she opened her house to the local boy.
“I just remember thinking, ‘Live your love loud, be who you say you are,’” Jennifer said. “If I can travel around the world and pay thousands of dollars (to adopt) a little boy from Africa, then surely there’s something we can do for this boy.”
Some days are harder than others for Kryste now that a year and a half has passed since Frank’s death.
As the months go by, grief is “like standing on the shore, feet plastered in the sand while the waves come at you,” she wrote on her blog earlier this year. “Some just lap at your feet, they come in quickly, barely touch you and then, fast as they came, they’re gone again. Others knock you over, steal your breath, leave you disoriented, scared, panicked.”
Sitting in her backyard and hearing Kiowa helicopters flying overhead no longer brings her comfort. But lifting up people in need, the same way her husband would, helps her reclaim a little of the life she lost.