WASHINGTON (Army News Service, Sept. 25, 2008) -- Thousands of families sharing a common bond met at the National Mall, near the base of the Washington Monument Sept. 20. They joined to remember their fathers, mothers, sisters and brothers who were killed while serving in the military.

A "Time of Remembrance" offered the families of children who have lost a parent an opportunity to come together and share the weight of loss. Children at the ceremony were offered gold medals to honor their struggle; families were given a chance to meet with others who are dealing with similar problems.

Acting Secretary of the Air Force Michael B. Donley reminded the attending families of the gratitude all Americans owe them and the families of the nearly 4,000 Soldiers that have died in current operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"To the families, and especially to the children who will receive the Gold Medal of Remembrance today, those of us who lead this nation's military, both in a civilian capacity and in uniform, are incredibly honored and humbled to be in your presence," he said. "Please note that our nation will be forever grateful and indebted for your sacrifice."

Army Chief of Staff Gen. George W. Casey, who lost his father in the Vietnam War, told some of the children, "I know you will never forget the loss of your parent.

"Know that we share your grief, and I share your perspective," he said. "And I pray that you will remember that your parent died in the service of this great country, doing what (he or she) believed in to maintain your ability to live, grow and prosper in freedom."

Casey and Luke Russert, son of the late "Meet the Press" anchor Tim Russert, gave the ceremony a uniquely personal feel by sharing their own feelings of loss and offering advice on how to cope.

"Death has brought me closer to my father," Russert said. He explained that although his father isn't physically here, he's more alive than ever in memories. His legacy lives on because those that survived him remember his life.

Though Tim Russert wasn't serving in the military, he did his job as a service to the nation, his son said. And the elder Russert, like the Soldiers commemorated at the ceremony, died doing the work to which he had committed himself, Luke Russert said.

"[Our parents] made the ultimate sacrifice," Russert said, "because they had the ultimate dedication."

Other speakers at the ceremony included businessman and former presidential candidate Ross Perot, ABC News White House correspondent Martha Raddatz, Navy Lt. Andy Baldwin (star of "The Bachelor: an Officer and a Gentleman"), Secretary of the Interior Dirk Kempthorne and retired Army Gen. Barry McCaffrey.

Marine Gen. James Cartwright, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; Gen. Casey; Coast Guard Rear Adm. Sally Brice-O'Hara and other ranking officials from the different service branches saluted the children of the fallen.

McCaffrey, who was wounded in Vietnam and served in the Gulf War, said that today's volunteer Army is made up of "the most courageous, dedicated troops we have ever put in uniform."

He reflected on the ceremony itself and others like it; he said he'd long pondered the idea of a ceremony that brings people back to the loss of their family members and had recently arrived at a conclusion.

McCaffrey said that to this day he remembers each and every one of his fellow Soldiers killed in Vietnam. The deaths during wartime, and the memories of those lost, he said, stay with friends, families and comrades-in-arms forever.

"We don't get over the loss of our loved ones; this isn't something we put behind us," he said. "These ceremonies are a time to share our memories."

Perot spoke about the dedication he saw in today's Soldiers, especially the wounded that he's visited at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. He said it wasn't uncommon to see generals and other high-ranking officials stopping in to check on enlisted Soldiers. If only the chairmen of the boards of big companies cared that much about their third-shift factory workers, he said, the country would be in better shape.

Perot also said that nearly all of the Soldiers that he has had the opportunity to meet have been eagerly awaiting their return to the theater.

"I tell them, 'You know, you don't have to go,'" he said. "But their response is always, 'Yes I do, my men are still over there.' I wish everyone in our society cared that much about their workers."

Carmella LaSpada, chairwoman of the Time of Remembrance event, offered her own condolences and tribute by acknowledging the families present as "heroes ... on the home front."

"We hope you'll be consoled by knowing that people remember," she said. "Your loss will not be forgotten and neither will you."

(Ian Graham writes for the Pentagram newspaper at Fort Myer, Va.)