WASHINGTON—On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, Chris Wasser, 18, of Ottawa, Kan., began his first day of boot camp in the U.S. Marine Corps. Wasser's mother, Candy, will never forget.
"As I stood there and watched the towers fall on television, the only thing I could do was to give Chris' life back to God and pray that God would make us good vessels for whatever was to come," Wasser recalled.
Lance Cpl. Chris Wasser died in Husaybah, Iraq, in 2004, the victim of a roadside blast from an improvised explosive device. Unmarried, Wasser, barely out of childhood himself, left no grieving children behind.
But that didn't stop Candy Wasser from joining a ceremony on Sunday that honored the sons and daughters of America's war dead. More than 3,000 people attended the event, where Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, presented a specially created Gold Medal of Remembrance to 180 surviving children of American troops killed in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Among the children was David Smith, son of Paul Smith, the only soldier thus far to receive the Congressional Medal of Honor for action in the Iraq war.
As she watched tearful families and youngsters who had received the award, Candy Wasser had mixed emotions that only the children of the fallen troops were being recognized, and not other family members.
"It's a personal issue for me that I don't have that daughter-in-law or that grandchild, but I don't want to take away from the sacrifices the children make," she said. "I appreciate the commitment that these young people have made to something that's much bigger than they are."
The circular gold-colored medal features a flame within a star that's encircled by a laurel wreath. It's attached to a purple ribbon, representing the wounded heart of a child who has lost a parent to war. The ribbon includes red, white and blue stripes and a black stripe to symbolize remembrance.
Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb, introduced the legislation that led to Sunday's event. He thanked the families who had lost loved ones. "We are not a greater nation for our power. We are a greater nation today for our purpose. You and your families continue to contribute to that purpose," Hagel told the audience.
Since the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in March 2003, nearly 2,400 U.S. military personnel have lost their lives. At least 235 U.S. troops have died in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Uzbekistan since the United States invaded Afghanistan in 2001, according to the Defense Department.
On Sunday, family members talked about how difficult it is to cope with those deaths.
Bonnie Eacho, of Watertown, N.Y., whose husband, Army Sgt. Donald Eacho, was killed by a roadside bomb in Ramadi, Iraq last year, said holidays are particularly tough for her and her sons, Matthew, 18, and Donald Jr., 7. "You just take it one day at a time," she said.
Dressed in a dark suit with his medal draped around his neck, Matthew fought back tears recalling his father. "He'd do anything for you," he said.
He said he misses going fishing with his father and seeing him in the stands at his high school baseball games. If he could talk to his father again, Matthew tearfully said he'd apologize for a disagreement they never resolved.
His mother immediately comforted him. "Just know he wouldn't love you any less," she said.
Sunday's event near the Washington Memorial was sponsored by the White House Commission on Remembrance, which Congress created in 2000 to raise awareness about the suffering and sacrifice of America's war dead and their families. The commission will sponsor a National Moment of Remembrance at 3 p.m. on Memorial Day.
Ben Barbin, a spokesman for the Commission on Remembrance, said the group is working on a way to send the new Medal of Remembrance to all surviving children of troops killed in Afghanistan and Iraq. The group hasn't determined whether Sunday's ceremony will become an annual event.
(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): REMEMBERING
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