By Sgt. David LietzMay 31, 2019
ARLINGTON HEIGHTS, Ill. - U.S. Army Reserve Brig. Gen. Kris Belanger, Commanding General, 85th U.S. Army Reserve Support Command, and Cmd. Sgt. Maj. Theodore Dewitt, Command Sergeant Major, 85th USARSC, attended Memorial Day ceremonies in Chicago and the surrounding suburbs to honor the service of fallen military heroes, May 25-27, 2019. Rain was in the forecast all weekend but held off until the final ceremony concluded Monday afternoon.
Gold Star Families and senior military leaders gathered together in downtown Chicago Saturday morning for the annual Gold Star Family breakfast.
"It was such an honor to represent the Army, to pay respect to the Gold Star Families, and to hear directly from the new mayor about her support and commitment to the military," said Belanger after hearing from Chicago's newly installed mayor, Lori Lightfoot's, opening remarks at the breakfast.
"It's an honor to be in the presence of our Gold Star Families. It's important that we honor and celebrate those who made the ultimate sacrifice," Lightfoot said. "It's important not to treat Memorial Day as just another day."
Lightfoot said she is old enough to remember seeing gold stars pop up in the windows of family's homes to honor those who died serving our country during war.
"It's important that we bring people together so that you have a community of support," said Lightfoot. "Here in the City of Chicago we will always be with you."
More than 200 people representing 50 Gold Star Families attended the breakfast, according to City of Chicago Deputy Commissioner, Ann Hickey.
The Gold Star Family breakfast originally began with Mayor Richard M. Daley, continued during the administration of former Mayor Rahm Emanuel and currently with Mayor Lightfoot.
"I believe it's between eight and ten years that we have had the Gold Star Breakfast. I do truly appreciate that they (service members) put their lives on the line to serve and protect us," said Hickey. "It's become something near and dear to my heart. I really enjoy being able to do this for them."
One of the Families attending the breakfast was Robert L. Ochsner, Illinois President of Gold Star Families of America and his wife. His son James died serving in Afghanistan.
"He and I talked a lot during his last tour in Afghanistan. He died doing what he wanted to do," said Ochsner.
"It's not a day for picnics, getting together and having a good time. Every one of us remembers our loved ones that we lost and the reason for it was to protect our country."
Following the Gold Star Family breakfast, many of the Families took photos with the new mayor and military leaders and then walked to Daley Plaza for the wreath laying ceremony.
Jim Frazier, a U.S. Marine Corp veteran and Survivor outreach services coordinator for Illinois Gold Star families, spoke at the wreath laying ceremony. He explained how to communicate with those who have lost a loved one serving in the military and shared a message that was emphasized by military personnel and veterans throughout the three-day weekend.
"First, offer your sincere condolences and then ask what their son's name was. We love to hear their names because we only have memories," said Frazier.
He added that military personnel can die twice. Once in combat and the final time their name is spoken.
The wreath laying ceremony was followed by the Chicago Memorial Day parade filled with marching bands, floats and decorated military and civilian vehicles. This year's parade Grand Marshal was U.S. Army Reserve Maj. Gen. Marion Garcia, Commanding General, 200th Military Police Command.
Army Master Sgt. Adam Shaw, Deputy Director, Office of the Chief of Public Affairs-Midwest, along with ABC 7 Newscaster Stacy Baca provided commentary, on the parade, from the reviewing stand where thousands of spectators lined the parade route.
Following the parade, Belanger and Dewitt visited South suburban Orland Park on a special mission to pick up a wedding dress, used by Aida Bonsonto, 97, which was made from a parachute her late husband sent home from Normandy.
The unique dress will be displayed at the 82nd Airborne Division War Memorial Museum in Fort Bragg, North Carolina. This was a final effort by Bonsonto to honor her husband who died in 1980.
On Sunday afternoon, the Village of Norridge held its 26th Annual Memorial Day observance.
"Norridge is a wonderful community. Their show of love and support for the military is so strong," said Belanger who participated in the ceremony as the keynote speaker and swore in ten new Army recruits including Drake Barone.
"This is the first time I ever swore in new recruits and to see the fire in their eyes and the passion in their voices shows me the future of our military remains strong," said Belanger.
"I'm really excited to serve this country. I'm proud of myself. I'm proud to say I enlisted," he said. "I will be a 25 Sierra (satellite Communications) and go to basic training at Fort Jackson, South Carolina."
Barone said he was inspired to join the Army by his grandfather who served in the Korean War.
Standing near the reviewing stand, Norridge Mayor James Chmura reflected on playing sports with some older teenagers who were sent to Vietnam.
"In 1967, I was 16 years old. They were all 18 or 19 years old and they let me play softball with them because I was good. I had a lot of friends who went to Vietnam and did not come back home so it (Memorial Day) means a lot to me," he said.
At the conclusion of the event, Cook County Commissioner and Master of Ceremonies for the observance, Peter Silvestri, reflected on the meaning of Memorial Day.
"I think it's important to celebrate our American way of life and the freedoms that come with it," he said.
On Monday, the Village of Arlington Heights held its' Centennial Memorial Day parade and ceremony.
Greg Padovani, Chairman of the Veterans Memorial Committee, handed out commemorative coins with the words 'Arlington Remembers' to honor military veterans.
The parade included police and fire trucks, marching units and two distinguished guests from the 85th USARSC.
Belanger and Dewitt rode in a replica of a WWII-style Army jeep and waved to spectators along the 1.2 mile parade route.
"It was an incredible and overwhelming parade that evokes an emotion within me unlike no other," said Belanger. "This community really knows how to pay their respects to the military, and I was honored to share my thoughts about this time honored tradition to those who sacrificed so much for our freedoms."
Belanger gave remarks during the Memorial Day ceremony that immediately followed the parade.
"The citizens of Arlington Heights continue to impress me with their support and gratitude to the military and to your hometown unit, the 85th (USAR) Support Command," she said. "Arlington Heights you got this one right."
Additionally, the 85th USARSC color guard team members marched in the parade. Sgt. Maribel Meraz was one of those Soldiers who carried a flag with the American Legion honor guard.
"I enjoyed the parade and felt very welcomed. I would be in the parade again. It was a very nice crowd," she said.
Meraz said during the parade a young girl gave her an American flag. In turn, Meraz handed her the combat patch she earned during a 10-month deployment to Kalsu, Iraq in 2011.
"The young girl also mentioned she was happy to see a girl in the military," added Meraz.
Col. Daniel Jaquint, 85th USARSC G3/Operations, represented the Army Reserve in a fourth ceremony, where he delivered remarks as the key note speaker at the north suburban Highland Park Memorial Day observance with more than 300 people in attendance.
Throughout the Memorial Day weekend a common sentiment that was shared in various ways was stated most simply by Garcia.
"Every liberty we enjoy today was earned for us."