The Tunnel to Towers Foundation paid off mortgages for a fallen Franklin police officer and five Gold Star families during a concert this month.
“It was such a great moment,” Tunnel to Towers CEO Frank Siller said. “I was so proud of what we do, and the reaction was spectacular.”
The foundation announced it would pay off mortgages for the families of Army Sgt. William Bernard McKenna, Army Sgt. Louie Ramos, Army Sgt. 1st Class Ofren Arrechaga, Army Spc. Russell Shane Hercules, Jr., Marine Corps Capt. Travis Walker Brannon, and Franklin police officer Jeffrey Carson.
Tunnel to Towers hosted the concert at Wildhorse Saloon in downtown Nashville on May 13, according to a news release. The concert included performances from artists such as Old Dominion, Brantley Gilbert, Darryl Worley, and Willie Shaw. Nearly 750 first responders and military families attended.
McKenna, from Mt. Juliet, died in 2010 of T-cell lymphoma. He succumbed to this disease as a result of burn pits in Iraq, according to his wife Dina McKenna. Less than a year after returning from his second tour of service and three days after Christmas, he left behind his wife and two daughters, Katelynn and Sabrina.
“My husband has been gone for 12 years,” Dina McKenna said. “Shaking the dust off, it makes him right here with me, supporting us and making sure that this is where we’re staying.”
The family lives in a rural area and owns several horses, including one named “Whiskey.” When the youngest daughter turned 18 years old, the McKenna family was set to stop receiving income through William McKenna’s pension, according to Dina McKenna.
“I was struggling with the idea of, ‘How am I going to cover the mortgage on this home?'” McKenna said.
McKenna then found Tunnel to Towers, applied to have her mortgage paid off, and members of the nonprofit said they had approved her application.
“It all went so quick,” McKenna said. “He must have been watching over me and feeling what my fears are: that we would have to sell this home, downsize, lose Katelynn’s horses, the gardens, and everything that we built here.”
McKenna said Tunnel to Towers paying off her mortgage made it feel like her husband was “still having a hand” in taking care of the house.
“It’s given me a sense of security that I’m not doing this all alone anymore,” McKenna said. “It’s definitely a blessing that came out of nowhere.”
Ramos died in combat in 2011 in Afghanistan, alongside five other soldiers from the 159th Combat Aviation Brigade, according to his wife Yesenia Ramos. He left behind his wife, two children, and a stepson, a news release said.
Yesenia Ramos said after filling out an application, she was accepted to the Tunnel to Towers mortgage program.
“I was just being grateful to God and being grateful to them,” Ramos said. “It’s a different experience, especially during this time of the year.”
May 26 is the eleventh-year anniversary of Louie Ramos’ death, Yesenia Ramos said. She said her husband’s death falling near Memorial Day reminds her to think of military and first responder families on the holiday.
“Please keep Gold Star families in thoughts and prayers, be kind, be mindful of what actually the true meaning of Memorial Day is,” Ramos said. “That’s the most important thing.”
Ramos has a daughter with disabilities, and she said Tunnel to Towers paying her mortgage took a weight off her shoulders.
“I know she will have a home, something that is hers,” Ramos said. “It’s a weight lifted that gives us a peace of mind, a better future for those that we care for.”
Arrechaga died during combat in Afghanistan while carrying out the largest 101st Airborne mission since Vietnam, according to his wife Seana Arrechaga. The Cuban-born soldier served for 10 years on a total of four deployments: three in Iraq and a fourth in Afghanistan. He left behind his wife, son, and daughter.
“For them to take care of the mortgage, it’s a huge blessing,” Seana Arrechaga said.
Arrechaga said Tunnel to Towers paying off her mortgage was a financial relief, especially since moving to a more expensive area.
“It just cost that much more to live here, and I did it for the school district,” Arrechaga said. “To know that I will always have a roof over my head, that’s a big deal.”
Tunnel to Towers not only provided financial relief, according to Arrechaga, but the group offered a support system since expanding to help military families.
“It’s a very full circle moment that they are making sure they’re taking care of us as well, and especially our kids,” Arrechaga said. “They’re not just doing their jobs. They become family.”
Hercules, a recipient of the Bronze Star and Purple Heart medals, was killed in Afghanistan in 2009. He was 22. Hercules left behind his wife Victoria, two children, and two stepchildren.
Brannon, a 30-year-old from Nashville, died in a 2019 training accident. He received the Global War on Terrorism Service Medal and the Sea Service Deployment Ribbon. Brannon left his wife Virginia and his daughter behind.
Carson was an award-winning country artist who sang song demos for singers such as Tim McGraw, Reba McEntire, Tracy Byrd, Faith Hill, and Tracy Lawrence. He joined the Franklin Police Department in 2008. Carson died of a heart attack on March 26, 2022, leaving behind his family.
“Jeff just would’ve never believed all of this,” Kim Carson, Jeffrey Carson’s wife, said in a news release. “We’re just so thankful.”
Siller founded the group in honor of his brother Stephen, a firefighter who died responding to the 9/11 attacks on the Twin Towers. The nonprofit hosts thousands for a 5K run each September on the route Siller’s brother took to the Twin Towers.
After a gunman killed New York Police Department Detectives Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos in 2014, Siller’s group began paying off mortgages for families of fallen military members and first responders.
“We can’t just do it for these two, it happens all over the United States,” Siller said. “Since 2014, we’ve paid off hundreds and hundreds of them.”
Tunnel to Towers paid off more than 200 mortgages in 2021, Siller said. Individuals can help these efforts by making donations at T2T.org.
“It’s not just the actual payment,” Siller said, “But you also have to be there for them afterwards, and we are. We’re one big family.”