The five women, all dressed in traditional white attire, proudly cradled photos of their sons. A heartbreaking, however inspirational, connection bonds them together on this Memorial Day weekend.
Each is a Gold Star Mother. Each lost a son, killed during warfare in Iraq and Afghanistan.
They all reside in the Gold Star Manor, a collection of 348 apartments on the west side of Long Beach. The complex houses veterans, their families and other eligible seniors.
American Gold Star Mothers is a nonprofit organization, comprised of mothers who lost sons or daughters while servicing in the U S. Armed Forces. The coterie was formed in 1928, initially a gathering of mothers of those lost during World War I.
“It is an honor to be here with these women whose sons paid the ultimate sacrifice for our freedom,” said Glen Patrick, the new president & CEO of the manor. “We love them dearly.”
This year, as the coronavirus pandemic wore on, the traditional Memorial Day ceremony was cancelled for a second time. Box dinners will be delivered to Manor residents this year, Patrick said, and a special ceremony is being planned for sometime in August.
Because of the coronavirus outbreak, last week’s get-together was the first time the Gold Star mothers have been together in more than a year.
Sandra Aceves was eager to thank all those “who are allowing us to enjoy this day.” Her son, Navy Petty Officer Fernando Mendez-Aceves, 27, was killed in Ambar Province, Iraq in 2004.
“We should never forget them,” she said of all the sons reflected in photos held by their mothers. “They are here. They are home with us.”
Each mother nodded in agreement. Each has her own story.
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Nadia McCaffrey shared a photo of her son dressed in full battle gear. A wide smile spread across his face.
Not long after that photo was taken, on June 22, 2004, Sgt. Patrick R. McCaffrey, 34, was killed while on patrol near Balad in Northern Iraq. He was the first California National Guardsman to die in the war in Iraq.
“Patrick was an All-American boy,” said his mother, who raised her son in the Tracy area of Northern California.
“He was always smiling and helped everybody,” said Mrs. McCaffrey, chair of the local chapter of American Gold Star Mothers. “He was kind of the angel of his unit. He especially loved those Iraqi children and they loved him.”
Mrs. McCaffrey said the death of her only child was devastating, “but when I look at that photo — with his face all aglow and his joy — I realize that he is at peace and this has helped me get through the pain.”
Mrs. McCaffrey received national attention when she invited the press to take photos of her son’s flag-draped coffin when it arrived in Sacramento in 2004.
In 1991, President George Bush installed a policy that prevented the media from the taking of such photographs of service members’ caskets, saying they infringed on the privacy of grieving military families. The policy remained in place under presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. Opponents of the policy argued that such a ban obscured the tragic impact of war. The policy was amended by President Barack Obama in 2009, allowing such photos to be taken unless families objected.
“I just wanted everyone to know Patrick and to remember,” she said at the time. “On the day of the 9/11 attack he wrote in his journal that he just had to do something to help the country. He was 30 with a wife and two children and a great job, but he enlisted, as he said to ‘partake in defending our soil from ever being attacked again.”
Initial reports said that McCaffrey and another soldier died in an ambush by enemy forces. After an investigation, however, the Army said they were killed by members of the Iraqi Defense Corps that the California Guardsmen were training.
On Memorial Day, Mrs. McCaffrey said she will be spending the day quietly remembering her son.
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Catherine Trevino said her son, Chief Warrant Officer Edward Balli, 42, was killed in action at Pasab, Afghanistan, on Jan. 20, 2014. An insurgent, accompanied by eight others dressed in military fatigues and suicide vests, detonated a truck bomb to clear the way for an array of gunmen, she said.
Mrs. Trevino said her son, a drone pilot, had logged multiple tours of duty, including two in Iraq and two in Afghanistan. He was just 2 ½ years away from retirement, she said.
The drone school in Watuka, Arizona — the only one in the U.S. — and a highway in Salinas are named for him.
“He joined the Army after high school,” she said. “He was very patriotic.”
A military biography described Balli as “an outstanding leader with a kind heart and smile who loved his job as an unmanned aerial system operations officer platoon leader, providing the eyes in the sky for soldiers on the ground.”
“I will always remember,” she said, “his laughter and kindness.”
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Sandra Aceves said her son, Fernando Mendez-Aceves, was born in Mexico City and graduated from a private school in Ponce, Puerto Rico. He was a Navy petty officer killed when his convoy was ambushed in Iraq on April 6, 2004.
Before the attack, he was trying to help a Marine who had been shot during combat in Fallujah, Iraq.
The third of four sons, the 27-year-old hospital corpsman was assigned to the Naval Medical Center in San Diego.
Mrs. Aceves received a letter from her son’s platoon leader after her son’s death: “I could tell he was a good man,” the letter said, “and whoever raised him did a good job.”
She will spend Memorial Day at a BBQ with her youngest son, Kenneth, and her mother, Diana.
“We do not wish this pain on anyone,” she said, “but we want everyone to remember what our sons have done for freedom and the country.”
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Martha Garcia is the mother of Army Staff Sgt. Juan de Dios Garcia Arana, 27, of Los Angeles,
He was killed by small-arms fire on April 30, 2005, when his Bradley fighting vehicle was attacked by enemy forces in Khaldiya, near Fallouja, Iraq.
Garcia was born in Guadalajara, Mexico and moved to Los Angeles in 1993. He graduated from L.A.’s Fremont High School.
“You would never find him sad or depressed,” said Juan’s brother, Edgardo. “He was one of the most joyful guys to be around.”
Garcia began his Army career as a cannon-crew member of A Battery, 2nd Battalion, 2nd Field Artillery in Fort Sill, Oklahoma.
In 2011, a new $9.8 million dining facility was dedicated in Fort Sill with Garcia’s name.
Mrs. Garcia said she and her husband, Daniel, care for a garden at the Gold Star Manor with “all kinds of flowers” dedicated to her son.
On Memorial Day, they will reflect there.
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Kathleen Chappell is the stepmother of Army SPC Jason K. Chappell, 22, of Hemet.
On Jan. 24, 2004, he died of injuries sustained when a car bomb detonated near his position in Khalidiyah, Anbar Province, Iraq.
In his obituary, he was described as “a bright student who threw himself into whatever he did, whether it was an academic competition or a school play. He was so determined in everything he did.”
A section inside the Hemet High School Library was named after Chappell. The library itself was renamed “Freedom Memorial Library” because of the number of graduates from Hemet High killed in conflicts in the Middle East.
Mrs. Chappell said she will spend time this weekend with her daughter, Wendy Webb, who lives in Bellflower.
She also will spend part of her Memorial Day in Applebee’s Restaurant in La Habra where a photo of Jason hangs in the wall.
“We used to live in La Habra,” she said. “There also is a banner in his honor in downtown La Habra.”
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Rebecca Toner, another Gold Star mother who lives at the Manor, was unavailable for the get-together last week.
She is the mother of Navy Lt. Francis Toner IV, killed on Sept. 23, 2011 in Afghanistan. A 2001 graduate of Westlake High School, he was a star running back for its championship football team.
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As the Gold Star mothers departed from the gathering Thursday, I asked Nadia McCaffrey what the Memorial Day weekend meant to her.
Her answer was simple, heartful and insightful:
“Every day is Memorial Day for us.”
Source: Orange County Register