In a matter of seconds, Triston Walsh went from being really mad at his mom to thinking she was the best mother in the world.
Julie Walsh had told the Millstadt, Illinois, teenager in December 2018 that she had sold the 1990 Ford Bronco that had belonged to his father, Nick, a Marine sergeant who was killed in Iraq 12 years ago. But she was actually conspiring with a local car dealership to have the vehicle restored for his 16th birthday.
More than 100 people, including a military color guard, gathered in the Mertz Ford showroom on Jan. 26 to see the staff present Triston Walsh with the shiny red vehicle with tan trim. They erupted in cheers when he climbed into the driver’s seat and started the engine.
"It just means so much to me," said Triston, who wiped away tears with his shirt sleeve. "I'm just really happy that I'm able to have a piece of my dad left with me."
After the big surprise, family and friends celebrated Triston's birthday with a patriotic-themed dessert table at the dealership, which had red, white and blue stars hanging from the ceiling.
Nick's official military portrait was displayed on an easel, along with his dress uniform. A sign listed all the automotive suppliers that donated parts for the restoration.
“It was overwhelmingly sweet,” said Julie’s cousin, Karrie Vanhosser, 44, of Troy, Illinois. “The look on his face was priceless. It makes me sad that his dad wasn’t here to see it.”
Triston is a sophomore at Belleville West High School. He turned 16 on Jan. 26, but he won’t be getting his driver’s license until February.
Triston was 4 years old when his father was killed in a 2007 sniper attack in Fallujah. One of their last adventures was a road trip from Colorado to California in the Bronco, just the two of them.
Triston and his brother, Tanner, now 12, had always expected to inherit the vehicle when they were old enough to drive. They were furious when it disappeared from the garage one day in December.
"(Triston) said, 'Where's my dad's truck?'" said Julie, 39, a stay-at-home mom who also has two daughters. "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.'"
Triston stormed upstairs to his room and spent the better part of two weeks giving his mother the silent treatment.
In reality, Julie had contacted Mertz Ford to get an estimate on restoring the Bronco. The dealership sent a tow truck to pick it up while the boys were in school.
“It was in pretty rough shape,” said Service Manager Ricky Boyer, 34, of Granite City, Illinois. “It was garage-kept, so it looked pretty good, but there were mechanical problems from it sitting around for so long.”
Boyer sprang into action. He contacted several automotive suppliers that agreed to donate parts. Mertz technicians Tim Jarrett and John McCall volunteered to work nights and weekends on the vehicle without pay.
They installed a new radiator, suspension system, battery, rotors, brake pads, tires, rims and other parts. They rebuilt the intake manifold and rear differential, secured the sagging headliner and performed a tune-up.
"We pretty much wanted to touch every nut and bolt on the vehicle because of its age," Boyer said. "We wanted it make sure it was safe and dependable for him."
Mertz Ford is a 97-year-old family business owned by Don and Debbie Mertz. They gave their blessing to the Bronco project, as did General Manager Greg Castelli.
“It started out as something small, and it just kept growing,” Don Mertz said. “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.”
The former Julie Kilgore is a Millstadt, Illinois, native who met Nick Walsh in 2001 while tending bar at a Marine Corps ball in North Carolina. He was stationed at Camp Lejeune.
At first, Julie slipped him a fake phone number (867-5309 from the Tommy Tutone song "Jenny"), but Nick wouldn't give up the idea of landing a date with her. He returned to the bar singing "Jenny" and begged for her real number.
"He was charming, and he had this big smile," she said. "I just couldn't not give it to him."
The couple fell in love and moved back to Illinois when Nick left the Marines. He worked construction, took classes at Southwestern Illinois College and joined the U.S. Navy Reserve. Then he served as a stay-at-home dad with Triston after Julie got a nursing job.
The couple married in 2005, two days after Nick rejoined the Marine Corps.
"He said, 'I just have this need. I just feel like this is my purpose,'" Julie said. "It was his calling to be in the military and serve his country."
Nick was stationed at Camp Pendleton in California when he left for his first Iraq deployment, which lasted about six months.
It was his father, Jerry Walsh, who bought him the Bronco in 2006. Nick wanted a retro truck with big tires to haul his gear. He flew to Colorado to pick up the vehicle and drove it back with Triston.
"They took the scenic route through the mountains because Nick wanted Triston to see it," Julie said. "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."
Nick left for his second Iraq deployment on April 1, 2007, about three months after Tanner was born. Julie had her last conversation with him on the morning of May 26 his time.
Nick complained of not being able to sleep. He cried and talked about how much he missed his family and wanted to come home. Julie found it odd because he was always the one who was strong and upbeat, insisting that everything was going to be OK.
A few hours later, Nick's reconnaissance unit reportedly had to stop on the streets of Fallujah because of a flat tire on a Humvee. When help arrived, Nick got out of the vehicle and stood in a circle with about a dozen military personnel. Then came a loud bang.
"His one 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," Julie said.
A sniper's bullet had hit two of Nick's arteries and punctured his lung. He was 26 when he died.
The next morning, Triston was watching cartoons and Julie was feeding Tanner when two Marines in dress uniforms knocked on her door in California and delivered the tragic news.
“I thought, ‘How can I tell his son, ‘Your dad is never coming home?''" she said. “Triston was just so excited every time he called. He just couldn’t wait. He was so attached to him.”
Julie and the boys lived in Chicago for two years before moving back to Millstadt in 2010 with Julie's partner, Nick O'Donnell, a history teacher at Belleville East High School. They now have two daughters, Tatum, 3, and Tinley, 8 months.
The couple had to tell another little white lie on Jan. 26 to get Triston to Mertz Ford. Supposedly, the dealership was selling a car that was suitable for him to test drive.
When the family walked into the showroom, the Bronco was hidden behind a paper curtain that eventually was ripped away so the vehicle could pull forward. Triston seemed stunned and speechless. He slowly walked up to the passenger door and peeked inside.
"Do you want to get in it?" his mother said. "Yeah," he answered, prompting laughter from the crowd.
No one at the gathering looked happier than the Mertz staff. The Bronco's restoration had become a labor of love and an act of patriotism.
Client and Community Relations Manager Amy Kern, 41, of Belleville, noted that both her grandfathers served in World War II, and one was a prisoner of war. In the past month, walking into the service department and seeing the Bronco gave her goosebumps.
“This was a way of showing (Triston) that the community cares, that the country cares,” she said.