A Day to Honor Family Members
Military Officials Express Gratitude for Sacrifices Made in Wartime

By James Hohmann
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 27, 2009

Shellie Smith escorted her two kids -- Spensir, 11, and Ayden, 4 -- to the stage when Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, asked all the children who had lost parents to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq to gather on the Capitol's West Lawn.

Most of the time, generals are on the receiving end of salutes. But on Saturday, Mullen saluted about 70 children of service members killed in Afghanistan and Iraq since 2001 as part of a celebration to recognize about 2,000 Gold Star families from around the United States. The designation is given to spouses, parents and other relatives of fallen service members.

Top military brass and celebrity guests spent more than an hour expressing condolences and gratitude to those in attendance.

Smith, 35, drove up from her home near Raleigh, N.C.

"Seeing all those little ones up there, that will get you," said Smith, 35, whose husband Justin was killed in November 2005. "It's sad when you see the little ones because they didn't get a chance [to know their fathers well]."

Gen. George W. Casey Jr., the Army chief of staff, told the audience that he was 21 when his father was killed in Vietnam. "I want the families to know that I carry the burden of their loss every day," he said.

Maj. Gen. Mark Graham's 23-year-old son was killed by a roadside bomb in Iraq.

"The spirit of loved ones are indelibly written on our hearts forever," he said. "They are fallen, but they will never be forgotten."

That resonated with Gary Lohman, 43 of Great Mills, whose stepson Ryan was killed in August 2008. He thinks about his loss every day, not just the few days set aside to remember those killed in combat. "It's not one moment in time or one moment a year," he said.

The White House Commission on Remembrance organized the fourth annual event, which was heavy on history. Two men in Revolutionary War-era uniforms rang a replica of the Liberty Bell. The Armed Forces Color Guard paraded with all 50 U.S. state flags. A lone bugler played taps.

Sue Vrooman of Superior, Wis., and her husband, Bruce, tracked down Mullen after the ceremony so they could get a picture with him.

"We got a really nice letter from him after Jeremy passed," Vrooman said, referring to her stepson who was killed in Iraq in July 2008.

A large screen next to the stage displayed a rotating, alphabetical list of the more than 5,100 fatalities from the two wars.

As the crowd emptied toward a free barbecue nearby, Meghan Walls patiently gazed at the screen. Her sweater absorbed the falling rain as the names scrolled past. The dirt at her feet turned to mud as she waited.

Around her neck, the 27-year-old wore her husband's wedding ring and dog tags. He died Aug. 1 in Afghanistan. She has three kids -- ages 5, 2 and 6 months -- at home in Fort Carson, Colo. She flew in for the event.

"It's been hard but good at the same time because I know that I'm not alone going through this," she said.

Finally, the name she was waiting for appeared: Walls, Jonathan.

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