Karen Swensen / Eyewitness News
NEW ORLEANS -- Every week at the First Baptist Church of New Orleans, Good Samaritans stuff backpacks with food to be sent home with needy kids on weekends.
They're kids whose teachers fear they'd go hungry without it.
This is a program made possible by volunteers and donors who give their time and money, and one person in particular who's sacrificed so much more. His name is Joey Bovia. His mom doesn't want you to forget it, either.
Chances are after you hear his story, you never will.
Joey Bovia is the stuff of legend – the life of the party, the funny, strong, fearless, motivating Marine Corps sergeant.
“They'd say he didn't have motivation, he had obviation,” said his little brother Matt.
Matt never doubted Joey would grow up to be a Marine.
“It was what he was made to do,” he said.
And it's what he loved. After two combat tours, Joey could've said no when asked about a third in Afghanistan, but he said he felt called to go.
“'I feel like God is telling me that I belong with these people I've trained,’” said Joey’s mother, Teresa Bovia, recalling her son’s words. “’None of them have ever been overseas before.’ And he said they’re all new, none of them had ever been deployed.”
With his mom's blessing, Joey led his Marines overseas, but not before promising the parents of those under his command, their sons would return safely.
In the desert, the troops waged war and peace, helping the villagers. And the hardened Marine revealed a soft spot for kids.
“He loved them!” Teresa said. “We would send candy, everything. We sent a box so that he could give them to the kids.”
You might say the little ones didn't steal Joey's heart. He gave it to them.
And when the Taliban kept trying to destroy their school, Joey volunteered his platoon to protect it.
But as they were building the security outpost, Joey made the decision that would earn him a Purple Heart.
“He said, ‘I don't lead from the sidelines.’ I'm gonna go help my guys,” Teresa said. “And he sent some guys down and he went up, and he was on the top of that outpost when they were attacked by the Taliban and he was shot in the head and killed.”
Teresa was alone when she heard the knock at the door.
“They just looked at me, and I said, ‘Please tell me, is he gone, is he gone? Or is he just hurt?’” she said. “And they said, ‘No, he's gone.’”
The following days were a blur -- Joey's return, the grief, the sympathy, the letters from Commanding General David Petraeus, former Defense Secretary Robert Gates, and the president.
“Although I can only imagine the sense of loss you both feel, you should know that the nation is grateful,” said Matt while reading President Barack Obama’s letter to the family.
And no one was more grateful than the parents of Joey's Marines. Joey had kept his promise – every one of their sons in his platoon made it home safely.
“He promised every one of their families that they would come home, and they did,” Teresa said, shaking her head. “They did.”
Ironically, the only parents Joey didn't promise were his own. But right before he deployed, he did leave them with parting words and something to hold dear.
“Mom and dad, I just want you to know that I love you no matter what. Thank you for all of the support you've given me,” Joey said in a recording to his parents. “I hope this brings some comfort to you when you miss me. I love you very much.”
“That's my boy,” said his mother.
Joey Bovia died last year at the age of 24.
But today his legacy lives on. The man who gave his life for needy children in a far off land now feeds them in his hometown. Joey's Hope for Hungry Children, the charity his family established in his name, the name they never want you to forget – Joey Bovia, the Marine who lived his life and to whom they remain "always faithful."