Lasting Wish, Lasting Gift

Author: Kristi Stolzenberg

Right now, on a quiet suburban street in Vienna — just outside the Beltway around Washington, D.C. — there’s a child grinning widely, feeling the rhythmic whoosh of the wind through her hair as she pumps her legs back and forth on a swing. Running just past the tips of her outstretched toes, two young boys race each other back to the slide, exchanging playground taunts all the way. Children’s laughter reaches above the treetops and rides the breeze of early fall. 

The playground nestles perfectly into this plot of land, giving the feeling there never could have been another use for this field — homes and stately trees growing up around it, biding its time until it realized its purpose. Yet, just months ago this playground was only a plan — the plan of a bereaved wife determined to fulfill her husband’s third and final wish made in the last days of his life.

Scott and Erica Wedding Picture

Scott in uniform


Scott's Three Wishes

MSgt Scott Walters of the Air National Guard, the namesake for this playground in Vienna, lived his life in pursuit of joy, even after he became ill. Where there was no joy to be found, he created it. Until the very end of his life, Scott was cracking jokes just to make his nurses laugh, savoring every last bite of strawberry on his tongue, and taking care of others. Before he passed in March 2021, he asked three things of his wife, Erica. 

  1. Bury me in Arlington National Cemetery.
  2. Continue our community garden.
  3. Donate a playground to our neighborhood. 

By March 28, 2022, Erica fulfilled Scott’s first request — he was laid to rest at Arlington in the presence of family, friends, and battle buddies. As for the community garden, Scott and Erica created the garden during the pandemic. The garden was Scott’s contribution to the fight against food insecurity in Fairfax County, but it has become more than Erica’s second promise kept to Scott. Last year, the Scott Walters Memorial Garden donated 500 pounds of food, and this year, the goal is 1,000. Not only is it touching the lives of those who receive the food, but it creates volunteer opportunities and a space to teach gardening skills. Maintaining the garden carries Scott’s legacy forward in the community he loved so much. 

As his colleagues at the 113th Civil Engineering Squadron — a component of the D.C. Air National Guard — explain, the D.C. Air National Guard is a community within a community. They wear the uniform one weekend each month, but on every other day, they are neighbors and community members. CMSgt Joshua Vance of the 113th states “That was Scott. His legacy was his work in the community.”


Last Wish: The Neighborhood Playground

With Scott’s first two wishes granted, Erica shifted her focus to his third and final wish: the neighborhood playground. Once the equipment was purchased and plans were made, she turned to her military family at the 113th. “We could have hired a contractor, but this meant more.” 

On April 29, 2023, members from the 113th, Erica’s TAPS community, friends, family, and neighbors gathered to build and dedicate the Scott Walters Memorial Playground.

And that would be a perfectly fine ending. 

volunteers build playground

volunteers build playground

volunteers build playground

finished playground


Scott's Wishes Bring Lasting Gifts

Erica’s last acts of caregiving complete, she could exhale, return to what she was doing the day before Scott got sick, and find her new normal. But, while Erica was honoring Scott by fulfilling his last wishes, she came to realize that these were, in fact, his lasting gifts to her. 

You see, the community garden didn’t just provide food and education to the community, Erica eventually recognized that — on those darkest days of grief — the garden was what pulled her out of bed in the morning. Volunteers were counting on her to show up, and she had a promise to keep to Scott — it became her purpose, drawing her forward through grief one step at a time. 

And then there’s the playground. Layer by layer, Erica realized that — in his brilliance — Scott never wanted the playground as a gift to him. It was always supposed to be his last gift to his family, his community, and even his battle buddies at the 113th. Building the playground brought together so many people in the area who Scott knew and loved — neighbors, friends, and members of his family and the 113th. As they worked, they supported each other through grief, shared stories of Scott, laughed, and hugged. It was a healing experience for each person there who knew Scott, and for years to come, he’ll bring joy to the children on that playground without ever knowing them. “It is just like him to do something to make people smile and bring joy,” Erica proudly shares, “and he’s still doing it.” 

The playground ended up taking two days to build, even with all the helping hands on deck. “I was so glad they didn’t finish on schedule because coming back a second day let me spend quality time with the crew, and it allowed one person who couldn’t be there the first day to be there, and it meant so much to him to be a piece of this project,” Erica says. 

Playground Crew with Erica

Playground Crew

Scott’s final three wishes fulfilled, and more than two years after his death, Erica is carrying on — an extension of Scott’s legacy in the community. But, as often happens after the loss of a great love, her grief occasionally swells to fill a quiet moment in the home she shared with Scott. As her mind wanders to the “I wishes” or “what ifs” — and just as a tear might try to fall, she hears the sound of the children laughing at the playground strategically built next door and shakes her head with the flattered, loving grin of someone at the center of a grand gesture. Scott’s last wish, his gift to Erica, created joy where there was none, and it will continue to fill her heart and her home with joy with each passing day.

Kristi Stolzenberg is the TAPS Magazine Editor.

Photos courtesy of Erica Walters.