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Connecticut Guardsman turns personal tragedy into 10 years of advocacy

U.S. Air Force Master Sgt. Jessica Roy (center), 103rd Security Forces Squadron S2 intelligence and investigations superintendent and antiterrorism program manager, Marc Spencer (right), and their families deliver gift bags to nurses at the Saint Francis Hospital neonatal intensive care unit in Hartford, Connecticut, on World Prematurity Day, November 17, 2019. Roy and Spencer both had infant sons pass away after being born prematurely and have dedicated the following years to advocacy work with the March of Dimes organization. (Courtesy photo)

U.S. Air Force Master Sgt. Jessica Roy (center), 103rd Security Forces Squadron S2 intelligence and investigations superintendent and antiterrorism program manager, Marc Spencer (right), and their families deliver gift bags to nurses at the Saint Francis Hospital neonatal intensive care unit in Hartford, Connecticut, on World Prematurity Day, November 17, 2019. Roy and Spencer both had infant sons pass away after being born prematurely and have dedicated the following years to advocacy work with the March of Dimes organization. (Courtesy photo)

U.S. Air Force Master Sgt. Jessica Roy, 103rd Security Forces Squadron S2 intelligence and investigations superintendent and antiterrorism program manager, with her son Austin on the day of his passing at the Connecticut Children’s Medical Center pediatric intensive care unit in Hartford, Connecticut, April 1, 2012. Roy has dedicated the years following her infant son’s passing to advocacy work with the March of Dimes organization. (Courtesy photo)

U.S. Air Force Master Sgt. Jessica Roy, 103rd Security Forces Squadron S2 intelligence and investigations superintendent and antiterrorism program manager, with her son Austin on the day of his passing at the Connecticut Children’s Medical Center pediatric intensive care unit in Hartford, Connecticut, April 1, 2012. Roy has dedicated the years following her infant son’s passing to advocacy work with the March of Dimes organization. (Courtesy photo)

U.S. Air Force Master Sgt. Jessica Roy, 103rd Security Forces Squadron S2 intelligence and investigations superintendent and antiterrorism program manager, and Marc Spencer at the 2016 March of Dimes Signature Chef’s Auction at The Bushnell Performing Arts Center in Hartford, Connecticut. Roy and Spencer both had infant sons pass away after being born prematurely and have dedicated the following years to advocacy work with the March of Dimes organization. (Courtesy photo)

U.S. Air Force Master Sgt. Jessica Roy, 103rd Security Forces Squadron S2 intelligence and investigations superintendent and antiterrorism program manager, and Marc Spencer at the 2016 March of Dimes Signature Chef’s Auction at The Bushnell Performing Arts Center in Hartford, Connecticut. Roy and Spencer both had infant sons pass away after being born prematurely and have dedicated the following years to advocacy work with the March of Dimes organization. (Courtesy photo)

U.S. Air Force Master Sgt. Jessica Roy (front center), 103rd Security Forces Squadron S2 intelligence and investigations superintendent and antiterrorism program manager, and members of “Team Austin Roy,” including members of the Roy family and Airmen from the 103rd Airlift Wing, at the Greater Hartford March for Babies at Pratt and Whitney Stadium at Rentschler Field in East Hartford, Connecticut, April 29, 2018. Roy has dedicated the years following her infant son’s passing in 2012 to advocacy work with the March of Dimes organization. (Courtesy photo)

U.S. Air Force Master Sgt. Jessica Roy (front center), 103rd Security Forces Squadron S2 intelligence and investigations superintendent and antiterrorism program manager, and members of “Team Austin Roy,” including members of the Roy family and Airmen from the 103rd Airlift Wing, at the Greater Hartford March for Babies at Pratt and Whitney Stadium at Rentschler Field in East Hartford, Connecticut, April 29, 2018. Roy has dedicated the years following her infant son’s passing in 2012 to advocacy work with the March of Dimes organization. (Courtesy photo)

U.S. Air Force Master Sgt. Jessica Roy, 103rd Security Forces Squadron S2 intelligence and investigations superintendent and antiterrorism program manager, with her brother, U.S. Army Maj. Eric Roy, Connecticut Army National Guard Inspector General office, and his son Colton at the Greater Hartford March for Babies at Rentschler Field in East Hartford, Connecticut, April 27, 2014. Roy has dedicated the years following her infant son’s passing in 2012 to advocacy work with the March of Dimes organization. (Courtesy photo)

U.S. Air Force Master Sgt. Jessica Roy, 103rd Security Forces Squadron S2 intelligence and investigations superintendent and antiterrorism program manager, with her brother, U.S. Army Maj. Eric Roy, Connecticut Army National Guard Inspector General office, and his son Colton at the Greater Hartford March for Babies at Rentschler Field in East Hartford, Connecticut, April 27, 2014. Roy has dedicated the years following her infant son’s passing in 2012 to advocacy work with the March of Dimes organization. (Courtesy photo)

EAST GRANBY, Conn. --

On July 21, 2011, Master Sgt. Jessica Roy gave birth to her first child, Austin. He was born prematurely at 26 weeks and weighed 1 pound, 11 ounces.

Doctors at Saint Francis Hospital in Hartford promptly placed him in the neonatal intensive care unit, or NICU.

“I was at the NICU all day every day until my maternity leave ended, and then I had to come back to work,” said Roy, 103rd Security Forces Squadron S2 Intelligence and Investigations Superintendent and Antiterrorism Program Manager. “So I would come to work, go right from work to the NICU for a couple of hours every night, and then go home so that I could rest and come back to work the next day.”

Roy wanted to learn as much as possible about premature births after Austin was born. Her curiosity led to her discovery of a group that quickly reached out to help.

“I was trying to research everything I could because I’m one of those people who has to know every possibility—the good, the bad, and the ugly—so I can plan and wrap my head around it,” said Roy. “In doing that, I stumbled across the March of Dimes because they’re big on prematurity, infant mortality, and maternal health. I ended up reaching out to them, and they sent some representatives to the NICU to meet me.”

The first person she met from the organization was Marc Spencer. Spencer also had a son born prematurely who had been in the same NICU as Austin.

“There was an instant connection,” Roy said. “That was the first thing that really struck a chord with me—they physically sent someone to show they care about what they do and the people who are affected.”

After approximately four months at Saint Francis, Austin was transferred to Hartford Hospital for a tracheotomy in an effort to improve his condition. Following the procedure, Austin spent the remainder of his life in the Connecticut Children’s Medical Center pediatric intensive care unit.

Austin Eric Roy passed away on April 1, 2012.

“He was eight months old when he passed away there,” said Roy. “His lungs weren’t healthy; he got sick a few times with pneumonia and never recovered.”

After meeting Marc Spencer, who also lost his son Evan, Roy also got involved with the March of Dimes. She organized the first “Team Austin Roy” at the organization’s annual March for Babies event at Rentschler Field in East Hartford, which took place a month following Austin’s death.

Roy’s team has participated every year since then, raising an average of $5,000 each year for an approximate total of $50,000 raised.

“It’s one of the only things I can still do for him, so it’s extremely important for me to do this every year,” said Roy. “We can’t have birthday parties and do all that stuff for him, but I want him to still be relevant in my life and my family’s life.”

Since Austin’s battle, Roy has received support from her fellow Airmen at the 103rd Airlift Wing.

“When he passed away, I had a same-day wake and funeral service, and I’ll never forget how people from the wing came to that, even people I didn’t know that well, just because I was a member of the Guard family—I’ll remember that forever,” said Roy. “Consistently, there have been people from my core friends here at Security Forces and other individuals in the wing that have come out. It’s nice to have that support from other people in the wing. It didn’t take a wing-wide announcement for folks to want to support this—they did it on their own.”

As part of her annual fundraising efforts, Roy also hosts a trainer-led charity workout in partnership with a local gym, in which her wingmen also participate.

Her brother, Maj. Eric Roy from the Connecticut Army National Guard Inspector General office, has attended the march every year.

“He was Austin’s godfather and had his first child a few months after I had mine," said Roy. “He’s brought his kids there too—a lot of people bring their children or dogs--so it’s a really nice event to get the whole family there,” said Roy.

Roy expressed the joy she feels participating in the march each year.

“They put on a great event and you get to see all these kids, who were probably in an incubator at one time, running around with superhero capes,” said Roy. “They want it to be a positive event and highlight the success stories, but they don’t forget about the people who lost somebody, so they do a little ceremony for that as well, which is nice.”

Fundraising efforts like these have made a positive impact on people’s lives, including her own, said Roy.

“Where the technology was when I had Austin versus when I had my son, Sawyer, even the way they handled my pregnancy—I know the funding contributed towards that, including some of the treatments,” said Roy. “My next pregnancy made it 36 weeks.” Her daughter Scarlett made it to 37 weeks, which is considered full-term.

Roy now has two healthy children born in 2018 and 2020, and encourages others never to give up hope.

“Everyone has their story, everyone has their struggle, and it’s okay to talk about it,” said Roy. “I know other people on base have had a preemie or lost a baby and that’s a hard, lonely, awful place to be. So I know that talking about it is helpful to other people too.”

Roy’s charity and advocacy efforts have continued, even as last year’s event was held virtually due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“That was difficult being my first year not being able to do it in person, but we still raised money and did what we could,” said Roy. “This year, they announced it would be virtual again, but I decided I’m going to do my own walk at a walking path in Avon on June 19. This year being that it’s the 10th anniversary, I have to do something.”

After the pandemic, Roy also hopes to return to the Saint Francis NICU, where her family and Marc Spencer’s visit families of kids currently in the NICU on World Prematurity Day--November 17--providing them with a source of hope.

“One thing I learned is that you don’t know how strong you are until being strong is the only choice you have,” said Roy. “I would say to anyone going through something like this, to take it day-by-day. And it’s not going to be easy, but it’s going to make you stronger.”