Thousands of Gold Star family members, motorcycle riders and others converged on the small city of Marseilles, Ill., on June 15 to honor those memorialized on the Middle East Conflicts Wall Memorial.
In advance of the public service, 226 names were added to the wall – the servicemen and women killed in the Middle East since the previous year's memorial.
"My heart goes out to all the Gold Star families here today," said Greg Hoffman, vice president of the Illinois Motor Cycle Freedom Run Association, the group that helps coordinate the annual event. "This is a day for you. Thank you for coming."
Gold Star families from across the nation – New York, Texas, Nebraska, Florida, etc. - make an annual pilgrimage to the wall to honor their loved ones and reconnect with others facing the same struggle. Emily Toro of the Bronx has attended the event every year since June 2008, when her son, Pvt. Isaac Thomas Cortes, was added to the wall.
"I look forward to this every year," said Toro, whose son was killed at age 26 in Iraq on Nov. 27, 2007. "I even purchase my flight at least eight months in advance. I know I have to be here. It took me nine hours to get here because of the rainstorm delay but it means a lot for me to be here.
"I have to be here. It's another way for me to honor my son. And not just him, but all 7,000 names that are on this wall."
The June 15 event marked the 10th anniversary of the wall, making it the nation's oldest memorial dedicated to the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere in the Middle East. More than 7,000 names are etched on the dozen panels, which are set in a small park overlooking the Illinois River.
Earlier this year, the river flooded its banks in Marseilles, causing some minor damage to the memorial.
"We had damage at the west end of the memorial," Hoffman said. "It washed out our pavers but did not do any damage to any of the panels themselves .... We had landscaping work done basically to get it back into the shape it is in now."
The day begins with between 3,000 and 5,000 bikers participating in the Illinois Motorcycle Freedom Run, which meanders through the countryside before entering downtown Marseilles, where crowds and a festival-atmosphere greet the riders. From there, Gold Star families and other attendees gather at the memorial for the reading of the names, speakers, stories, and lots of tears and hugs.
"The event makes you feel good," Hoffman said. "It's the day we all wear our sunglasses because we go around crying. Because your heart just has to go out to these families. And we see what it means for them to come here."
Afterward, nearby Legion Post 235 hosts a private meal for the Gold Star families. But it's more than a place to go to eat; it's a place where the families can go to talk, listen and bond with others who share the same connection.
Gene Thompson, a 60-year member of Post 235 and former Department of Illinois commander, says the families are very appreciative of the free event hosted by the post.
"We get letters back from them (Gold Star mothers) that they are very thankful," he said. "And sometimes they send us photos of their sons or daughters. They sometimes give donations that they send in, even though we don't expect it."
The Gold Star families are full of gratitude toward the organizations that put on the event, the many volunteers and Post 235.
"I love it (the whole day) because I get to meet other Gold Star parents from all parts of the country," Toro said. "We all come together as one. We all know what we feel. We all have that same hurt. I'm here for all the Gold Star moms and I love being around them."
Check out a video of the memorial and the annual event .