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Gold Star families honored at Prestige
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Eight-year-old Christian Schmidt stays close to his dad Jon at their table wearing a shirt emblazoned with a picture of his late uncle, Staff Sgt. Daniel L. Hansen, who died in Afghanistan in February 2009. - photo by GLENN KAHL
Gold Star Mothers and family members from throughout the Northern San Joaquin Valley gathered Saturday to honor their soldiers and sailors who sacrificed their lives for their country while feeling each others everlasting grief.

It was not just the mothers who shed a tear or two or more during the dinner, hosted by the Prestige Senior Living and organized by Pastor Mike Dillman, but also from staff members at the facility who expressed like emotion in the moment.

Sally Monsoor, mother of Navy Seal Michael Monsoor – who dove onto a live grenade to save his comrades – sat almost transfixed at the head table where she drew applause for her loss.  It was hard for her to speak, but she voiced how glad she was to be able to meet the families of the other fallen servicemen.

Sitting next to her was Navy Rear Admiral Elect Margaret A. Rykowski of The Third Fleet.

“I want to thank all the veterans and I appreciate the opportunity to thank you in person for your sons and daughters.  I know what it feels like,” she said.  “We are connected together in our tragedies first, and also with our children because of what they stood for.

“Memorial Day is an opportunity for the country to honor our heroes.  God bless you and your families,” Monsoor concluded.

Dillman said he couldn’t sleep Friday night after he supervised the installation of the service men’s portrait panels in Woodward Park that were mounted near 5,800 white crosses. It was obviously the minister’s hope that his efforts this Memorial Day weekend would create a time for healing some of the emotional wounds parents had endured.

Pastor Dillman was so overwhelmed by his project that he took his sleeping bag down to the park about 10 o’clock. Friday night  and laid down by the panels meditating on what each military man had given to his country and what they had done to keep the country free.  It is because of their dedication and sacrifice that our grandchildren will be free, he stressed.  He added that he will long remember that night with the full moon casting shadows behind those white crosses on the park grass.

Wounded warriors in attendance
Chuck Palmer served as master of ceremonies for the event remembering the son that he and his wife Teri miss terribly.  Palmer recognized two “wounded warriors” seated in the room Bob Guiterrez and Earl Watson.  He also read a Presidential Citation that had been penned by former President George W. Bush.

Gold Star Dad Kevin Graves – a roofing salesman – joined the state militia after his son’s death.  He is now a specialist in rank, the same grade as his fallen son.  Graves is serving as an assistant chaplain in his group that supports the California National Guard and is under the command of the governor.  It was the death of his son that prompted him to go into the service, he said.

The militia is an artillery unit that has been deployed in Iraq and is scheduled for overseas service again in 2012.  

“It is an honor to wear the uniform in the footsteps of my son,” Graves said.

Graves gave the invocation prior to the dinner.

One grandmother, Lee Anderson, of Modesto, sat at one of the tables in the corner of the room with thoughts of her grandson Michael Anderson, Jr. as her son Michael and daughter-in-law Angela were hosted at the head table.  She gave one Marine a tight arm hug when he came up to her table during the evening.

Prestige Senior Living owner Harold Delamater hosted the event at his retirement center on East Louise Avenue. He was also deeply touched by the ceremonies and memories of family losses in combat.

“I am humbled and honored by the families here and by the men who gave up all their tomorrows that we might be free,” he said.

Delamater served himself as an army officer in Germany between 1969 and 1973.  “I wondered many times why I didn’t go to Vietnam,” he said. Delamater was in the Corps of Engineers in the Seventh Army.

Sunny Sundell, director of the retirement center, said privately that her service to seniors was a direct result of caring for her Marine dad who had earned three bronze stars in combat.

It was a time when there were few care centers available and she took time off from her job to take care of him.  

“I was a Marine kid,” she said and she was there as he got older and he needed her.  Chuckling, she said, “The first song I played as a kid on the organ was the Marine Corps Anthem.”

“This is a highlight of my career to watch all the Gold Star families being together,” she said.

Sundell went on to say she lived in Okinawa for a year when her husband was in the Navy.  “I don’t think people appreciate the American Flag when they see it waving – it means a lot.”

The Gold Star families left for additional ceremonies at the conclusion of the dinner.  A Manteca police motorcycle team, led by Lt. Nick Obligacion, escorted them through city streets to the park south of the Highway 120 Bypass.  The officers included Patrick Danipour, John Machado and David Bright.