Loretta and Sheldon Bridges were shocked when their 17-year-old son announced he intended to enlist in the Army.

Steven Bridges had just graduated with the class of 1988 at Tracy High. The theater arts enthusiast never had expressed interest in the military, and his family has no such background. Loretta and Sheldon asked the questions most parents would, including, “Are you sure about this?’”

But Steven was determined.

Sheldon said the military did a world of good for his son. Steven had served some 15 years combined over two stints in the Army and had ascended to Staff Sergeant when he was on night patrol during Operation Iraqi Freedom. The Stryker armored vehicle on which he rode atop the turret overturned into a canal. Bridges and the driver were killed. He was 33 years old and left behind a wife, four children, including three stepchildren, and one grandchild.

Saturday, 15 years to the day of his tragic death, Steven Bridges, along with other veterans and active service men and women will be honored on Stockton Heat Military Appreciation Night when the Heat plays the Manitoba Moose at 6 p.m. at Stockton Arena.

“It’s a bittersweet time for us,” said Loretta Bridges, a retired office worker, who makes her home in Tracy with Sheldon, a retired head custodian at New Jerusalem Elementary School in Tracy. “When the date came up for this, we kind of looked at each other and said that would be kind of nice to honor our son on the 15th anniversary.”

The Heat will host the Bridges and other area Gold Star families: Lori and Greg Coumas, whose son, Army Specialist Kyle Coumas of Lockeford, was killed by a roadside bomb on Oct. 21, 2009, in Kandahar Province, Afghanistan; Rebecca Mizener, mother of Pvt. 1st Class Jesse Mizener, who went to Bear Creek High in Stockton and was killed in action on Jan. 7, 2004, in Baghdad; and Roberta Taylor, whose son, Lt. Col. Dr. Mark Taylor, was killed in action on March 20, 2004, in Fallujah.

Steven Bridges served during Operation Desert Storm and took a year off before he rejoined the Army. Just days after Steven and his wife, Debbie, hosted Loretta and Sheldon and Steven’s squad for an early Thanksgiving dinner at Fort Lewis Military Base near Tacoma, Washington, the phone rang bringing news no parent ever wants.

“I collapsed on the floor,” Loretta said.

Since that terrible day, the Bridges have honored their son by assisting veterans at Dignity’s Alcove in Stockton, a housing facility and transition program for homeless veterans, and volunteer with the Foundations of Recovery program in Palo Alto, which provides a full range of services. The Bridges provide home-cooked meals and coffee and snacks; they fill gift bags with essentials; hand-sew new fleece blankets and commemorate Vietnam veterans with special ceremonies. Each month, the Bridges see new groups of veterans, ranging in experience from current conflicts to the Vietnam War.

“Some of these vets are estranged from their families or their families live so far away, they are not able to visit them,” Loretta said.

On Wednesday, the Bridges visited Dignity's Alcove and dropped off brownies and a large container of coffee.

“They are a very nice couple,” said Julie Moralez, director of Dignity’s Alcove. “The guys always are happy to see them.”

Loretta said Steven experienced nightmares prior to leaving for Iraq a second time. She believes had Steven come home, he very well could have needed the services she and Sheldon are helping support.

“We know he had PTSD,” Loretta said. “His wife said he woke up in the middle of the night and was having nightmares before going back over. We know that could be any veteran. It’s just our little way of saying thank you to all of our veterans and our sons and daughters.”

On Dec. 15, which is Wreaths Across America Day, the Bridges and other families will lay wreaths on the graves of fallen veterans buried at Tracy Cemetery. Loretta and other Gold Star Mothers in Tracy had about 200 wreaths five years ago when they started this effort. This year, they will lay some 1,600 wreaths, about 400 fewer than the number of veterans she said are buried there.

Steven Bridges lays in rest at Fort Lewis, along with Debbie, who passed away eight years ago from a stroke. Their children are grown and live in Washington state and Texas.

Loretta and Sheldon were grief-stricken when they lost their son. They have courageously and selflessly honored his legacy through service to veterans and their families, which is what they believe Steven would have wanted.

“It really hit hard when it happened,” Sheldon said. “But as time moves on, the Lord kind of protects us from things.”


Contact reporter Bob Highfill at (209) 546-8277 or jhighfill@recordnet.com. Follow him on Twitter @bobhighfill.