After Triston Walsh’s dad was killed on a tour of duty, all the 16-year-old wanted was something to remember him by. So when his mom told him she had sold his beloved Ford Bronco, the teen was understandably devastated and refused to talk to her. It would take a lot to win back her son’s affection, but his mom had a secret plan.
Triston is a full-time student, in his sophomore year at Belleville West High School. He lives with his family in Millstadt, Illinois, which in fact is just across the state border from St. Louis, Missouri. Life, however, has been tough at times for the teenager, his 12-year-old brother, Tanner, and their mom, Julie, 39.
Julie was born Julie Kilgore and was raised in Millstadt. At age 21, she happened to be working a bar at a marines’ function in North Carolina. That’s where she met Nick Walsh. The young soldier had been attending Camp Lejeune, a training ground for the Marine Corps in Jacksonville.
Nick took an instant shine to Julie. However, the feeling was not necessarily reciprocated. When he asked for her number, all she would offer was 867-5309, which is actually from the song “Jenny” by Tommy Tutone. The well-known single reached the top five on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1981.
But when Nick realized he’d been duped, he remained undeterred. He was so smitten with Julie that he went back to the bar to try and win her over. And the marine had a plan. He learned the song from which the number she gave him was taken, and he serenaded her with it.
This time Julie was quite taken with the young soldier and his persistence. Perhaps realizing that his intentions were true, she had a change of heart. As she recalled to the Belleville News-Democrat in January 2019, “He was charming and he had this big smile. I just couldn’t not give [my number] to him.”
Nick’s tactic, then, had worked. And not only did he get the number he desired, he got a whole lot more. Julie agreed to go on a date with him. Then the bar tender and marine fell in love. The couple returned to Illinois when Nick had completed his military training.
Done with the Marines, Nick instead got a job working in construction, furthered his education at the Southwestern Illinois College, and enlisted in the U.S. Navy Reserve. And when Triston arrived in January 2003, he stayed at home to care for him while Julie went to work as a nurse.
Nick and Julie married in 2005. Two days before their wedding, however, Nick re-enlisted with the Marine Corps. It’s a situation that Julie accepted. As she recalled, “He said, ‘I just have this need. I just feel like this is my purpose.’ It was his calling to be in the military and serve his country.”
The marine, who was posted to Camp Pendleton, California, was sent to Iraq on his first deployment. The tour of duty lasted only six months. On his return he wanted to make the best of his time with his young son: Triston. The pair would consequently spend a lot of time together.
In 2006 Nick’s father, Jerry, bought him a 1990 Ford Bronco truck. With the truck located in Colorado, Nick caught a flight to collect it and drove it back to California with Triston by his side. The trip, and by extension the vehicle, would leave a lasting impression on the child.
“They took the scenic route through the mountains because Nick wanted Triston to see it,” Julie explained to the Belleville News-Democrat. “They slept in the truck and had kind of a bonding experience. Nick loved what he was doing [in the military], but he felt bad about missing some of Triston’s milestones.”
On April 1, 2007, Nick departed for his second tour of duty in Iraq. It was around three months after the arrival of his second son, Tanner. Within two months of his deployment, Julie had spoken her last conversation with her husband. It was an exchange that she has never forgotten.
As Julie spoke to her husband, she recalled, had he seemed out of sorts. He had had difficulty sleeping. He had wept as he had described missing his family, to the point that he had wanted to go home. It was a strange situation for Julie to hear about, as Nick was usually so in control and positive.
Within hours of the call ending, it’s believed a flat tire on their Humvee brought Nick’s reconnaissance unit to a halt in Fallujah. As they awaited help, the soldiers got out of the vehicle and huddled together. Although hostilities in the city were winding down, it proved a risky place for the unit to be stranded.
The group heard a loud bang. As Julie described, “[Nick’s] friend said he felt a bullet whiz by him and then he heard Nick say, ‘Oh that hurts,’ and then he just fell to the ground and everybody ran to take cover.” A sniper had fired a bullet which struck two of the marine’s arteries, piercing his lung. Aged 26, he succumbed to his injuries.
Julie received the news the next morning. It’s the visit that no military wife wants to receive. She was at home in California, feeding the months-old Tanner as Triston was sat in front of the TV watching cartoons. Little did she know, she was about to receive a visit from her husband’s colleagues.
As Julie watched as two uniformed marines approached her front door to give her the news. Her thoughts, however, immediately turned to her sons. She recalled, “I thought, ‘How can I tell his son, “Your dad is never coming home”?’ Triston was just so excited every time he called. He just couldn’t wait. He was so attached to him.”
Julie took her sons to live in Chicago shortly after her husband’s death. Two years later, they moved to her home town of Millstadt. By 2010 she had a new partner, Nick O’Donnell, a history teacher at a local high school. Triston and Tanner now have two half-sisters, three-year-old Tatum and nine-month-old Tinley.
Triston was only four when he lost his dad. One of his few outstanding memories of his father was the road trip they took together in the old Ford Bronco. The truck had sat in the garage, waiting for Triston to fire it up again as soon as he was old enough to drive.
But one day in December 2018, the truck was gone. The red Bronco that had been in the family for 12 years after Triston accompanied his dad on the road trip from Colorado to California was nowhere to be seen. The teenager believed that he would inherit it. So where had it gone?
As Julie explained, “[Triston] said, ‘Where’s my dad’s truck?’ And I was like, ‘Well, kiddo, I had someone come out and look at it, and it’s going to cost way too much to fix it, so I sold it and I’m going to use the money to buy you a better car.” Understandably, the teenager was furious.
The exchange did not end well. After storming off to his room, Triston refused to speak to his mom for the next two weeks. A heartbreaking situation for sure, then. But perhaps her son’s refusal to talk to Julie made it easier to keep the secret she was hiding from him.
You see, Julie hadn’t been entirely honest with Triston. In fact, the mom-of-four had been in contact with a Ford dealer to work out what it would take to get the Bronco up and running again. Despite not having been fired up for 12 years, the truck wasn’t in the best shape.
Ricky Boyer is the service manager at Mertz Ford in nearby Granite City. He said, “It was in pretty rough shape. It was garage-kept, so it looked pretty good. But there were mechanical problems from it sitting around for so long.” So it was towed the workshop while her sons were in school.
At the shop, Boyer and his team set to work. A new radiator was fitted and suspension system installed. The truck was given a new battery and rotors, as well as having its wheels comprehensively overhauled. Boyer and his crew treated all of these and other mechanical tasks as a labor of love.
Car parts were donated free of charge. Tim Jarrett and John McCall, a couple of mechanics at Mertz, gave up their evenings and weekends without pay so that they could carry out the repairs. But for Boyer and his team, this wasn’t a regular fixer-upper being readied to earn a quick buck.
As Boyer explained, “We pretty much wanted to touch every nut and bolt on the vehicle because of its age. We wanted to make sure it was safe and dependable for him.” As it happened, Julie had a plan for her late-husband’s truck that she had not let Triston in on.
Julie hadn’t sold the Bronco at all, nor had she intended to after the repairs. She knew what the truck meant to Triston and wasn’t about to take it away from him. With her son about to turn 16, she wanted the truck in operational order, ready for when he got his driver’s license.
So Julie sold her son a story so he didn’t catch on to his birthday surprise. But to execute her plan, she needed to tell him one more little white lie. She told Triston that Mertz Ford had a car that she wanted him to test drive: a suitable replacement for his dad’s Bronco.
Triston went to the Ford dealers with his mom and brother. As they entered the showroom, a crowd had gathered to witness what Julie had done for her son. The Bronco was parked out of sight, with a paper curtain erected around it, ready to be presented to the 16-year-old.
After a brief presentation in front of around 100 Mertz Ford staff and military personnel, the Bronco was fired up. The truck rolled forward, through the paper curtain and toward Triston and his brother, to cheers and applause from the crowd. Video of the moment shows that Triston is visibly emotional as he wipes away tears with his sleeve.
Triston walks over to the truck and takes a look inside. He seems completely lost for words as he admires the vehicle looking almost as good as new. “Do you want to get in?” his mom asks. And as if she’s just asked the most obvious question in the world, he simply replies, “Yeah,” to the amusement of the crowd.
It was a project that once started took on a life of its own. The Marine Reconnaissance Foundation picked up the tab for the work. Once Mertz had taken on the job, other local businesses came on board to help out. Nick, then, was a much-loved man and the local community happy to help out.
Friends and family got involved to turn the presentation into a celebration for Triston’s birthday. There was catering, decorations and cupcakes. There was a photographer and videographer to document the occasion. As Julie wrote in a Facebook post dated January 31, 2019, “Nick’s contagious love and ability to bring people together continued.”
The celebration had a patriotic theme in honor of Triston’s father. Consequently, red, white and blue stars hung from the ceiling. A portrait of Nick wearing his marine’s uniform was hung on an easel. Also, his dress uniform sat alongside it. There was a sign bearing the names of everyone who had contributed to the project.
“It was overwhelmingly sweet,” Karrie Vanhosser, Julie’s cousin told the Belleville News-Democrat. “The look on [Triston’s] face was priceless. It makes me sad that his dad wasn’t here to see it.” But in Nick’s absence, the community more than enthusiastically rallied around to show their appreciation of his sacrifice.
Mertz Ford has been in business for nearly 100 years. Owner Don Mertz said, “It started out as something small and it just kept growing. Everybody was chipping in, and our employees agreed to do the work on their own time. I’m so proud of them. It was all for someone who made the ultimate sacrifice.”
For Julie, the gesture was a continuation of the love and support she has felt from her friends, family – old and new – and community since he husband’s passing. She wrote on Facebook, “I know Nick Walsh is shining down on all of us. To lift our spirits, to let us know he’s still near and to bring us all a little closer together.”
For Triston in particular, it was about more than just a truck. One of the last memories the teenager has of his dad was their road trip across four states to take the Bronco home. He told the Belleville News-Democrat, “It just means so much to me. I’m just really happy that I’m able to have a piece of my dad left with me.”