DARIEN, Ill. - An audience gathers slowly taking their seats Dec. 6 in front of 18 candles representing the lives of Soldiers who died while in service of their country.
Families took turns lighting a candle for their service member who died in labor for their country at a remembrance ceremony at St. John Lutheran Church in Darien, Illinois, as part of the 416th Theater Engineer Command Family Programs.
The Soldiers who were honored spanned the last 50 years, from Vietnam to 2013.
The youngest Soldier was 19-year-old Pvt. Mayra Ariza. Her father and mother came to honor her duty to country by recognizing her dedication to service.
The mother of Pfc. Aaron Toppen lit his candle as she wiped tears from her eyes and the rest of the family patiently watched as she took in his memory.
"His candle burns for his spirit and for his love. I love you my son," she said.
Families wore shirts and jackets with pictures of their loved ones printed on the fabric. The Baker family had black shirts emblazoned with a photo of Sgt. 1st Class Jerome "Boo" Baker looking cool in his shades and baseball cap with his date of death, Sept. 13, 2013.
All of the families invited to the event were from the greater Chicago area.
Sarah Martinez, of Oak Forest, Illinois, 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.
The event was organized by the 416th Theater Engineer Command's Family Support Program and the Survivor Outreach Program, which connects military families with services or even therapy when they lose a loved one.
"This event is very meaningful to me, and I'm honored to be able to host an event in which families can remember their loved ones sacrifice and feel supported in their grieving process," Dawn M. Sands, Army Reserve Survivor Outreach Services, support coordinator.
Sands added about the reason for this event, "The remembrance ceremony is an event started last year in which families light a candle in honor of their fallen Soldier. This is a way to continue to support families in their grieving process and show them that their loved ones sacrifices have not been forgotten. These families never forget their loss and the impact of that loss is evidenced in their lives every day."
A color guard started and ended the event by posting and retiring the colors honoring the service members.
"Our daughter is named after her father. We spelled his name backward. Her name is R-o-t-c-e-h," said Sandra Cruz, the wife of Sgt. 1st Class Hector J. Cruz, who died while on active duty.
Sgt. Donald Mate died while serving in Vietnam, making him the earliest Soldier who lost his life in service to country. His brother, Paul Mate, and sister-in-law, Joyce Mate, after nearly 50 years of his death still honor his sacrifice.
The Soldiers honored today died in a combat, in accidents or due to health complications, while defending the country and the values it stands by.
Lt. Col. Gregory Novak, personnel officer for the 416th TEC, summed up the meaning of the day, "We are honored to be able to call you loved ones 'brother' or 'sister,' and we are blessed to be able to walk a path that your loved ones have made smooth for us."
"This nation would not be as great as we all know and love it to be, without the sacrifices of men and women like your loved ones," he said.