DARIEN, Ill. - One at a time, families walked up the aisle of St. John Lutheran Church to light a candle in honor of loved ones Nov. 2.
The father of one soldier kept wiping away tears from his eyes as he waited for his turn. Two different families wore shirts and jackets with pictures of their loved ones printed on the fabric. Some brought framed pictures or even medals to help share their stories. In all, 34 names were honored; a list that included service members from across military branches that served as far back as World War II.
All of the families invited to the event were from the greater Chicago area.
Sarah Martinez, of Oak Forest, Ill., wore a black bracelet with the words, "Not forgotten," printed around the band. She said that the memories of her brother, Spc. Kevin Paulson, came to mind as she lit the candle for him.
"They don't get recognized as much as they should," she said. "It was just very nice of them to organize this event."
The event was organized by the 416th Theater Engineer Command's Family Support Program, located in Darien, Ill., and the Survivor Outreach Program, which connects military Families with services or even therapy when they lose a loved one.
"Thank you is not big enough," said Tamra De Benedetto, the Family Programs director, as she tried to find words to express her gratitude to these families.
"We can never repay that family for the ultimate price they paid for every freedom we enjoy ... I think [this] is a venue that ... shows respect and honor to their family member outside of the funeral."
In all, more than a dozen people worked on assembling every detail, from the candles to the color guard to the reception held downstairs after the ceremony.
"We are just grateful to be part of this event. It's four years later and we are still here and you are still honoring him. We're very proud of what he did and what [the Army] will continue doing," said Luz Trejo, the stepmother of Pfc. Mario Trejo-Castro, who died in July of 2009, just a few months before he was scheduled to deploy.
After each candle was lit, women received a red rose, men received a lapel pin of the American flag and children received a small teddy bear. Both Brig. Gen. David L. Weeks, deputy commander of the 416th TEC, and Command Sgt. Maj. Robert L. Stanek, command sergeant major of the 416th TEC, handed out these symbols of appreciation and comfort to the surviving families.
The stories vary of how each honored member died. Some of the service members died in combat, others died on U.S. soil, but the loss of each weighed heavily on the hearts of families left behind. The intent for the event was to reassure the surviving families that they were not alone.
"I know exactly how they're feeling, and it's important we can all get together to share the same experiences," said Trish Hansley, of South Elgin, Ill. She wore a shirt with the photo of her son, Timothy Hansley, who suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder after returning home from Iraq and died in the hospital.
"I think it is amazing that they put something together so we could remember them," Hansley said.