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Nearly 20,000 attend Woodward Park event
MEMORIAL4 5-28-12a
Place of Refuge Pastor Mike Dillman, center, shares an emotional moment with the family of Army Ranger Staff Sergeant Jared Hagemann as they located the fallen soldiers name on the 11th panel of the Traveling Tribute that was dedicated Sunday. - photo by HIME ROMERO

Army Ranger Staff Sergeant Jared Hagemann’s mother leaned down to touch the name of her son.

It was listed on a panel with nearly 600 others who have fallen during the past year in The Global War on Terror. Ray and Pat Forester stood just behind her. Their son Mark’s image graces the 11th panel that was being added to the Traveling Tribute to those serving America that have fallen since Sept. 11, 2001.

Several yards away, a battle harden Vietnam veteran stood at attention as he wiped a tear from his eye.

“We will never forget,” Pastor Mike Dillman said of the fallen represented by 7,000 crosses that lined a field where most Sundays youth play soccer.

That was the mission Sunday for Dillman and a small army of volunteers that staged the Not Forgotten Memorial Day Weekend commemoration at Woodward Park. They wanted to make sure that the fallen would not be forgotten and that their families could be assured their sons, daughters, brothers, sisters, fathers, and mothers did not die in vain.

By the time the day was over with and after the last rocket of fireworks exploded above Woodward Park upwards of 20,000 people had participated in the event that is the largest of its kind on the West Coast.

“Mark loved this country,” his brother Thad Forester told those gathered for the dedication of the 11th panel.  “He wrapped his body armor with the flag.”

It was that gesture by the senior airman known by the call sign “JAG 28” that served in arguably the Air Force’s most dangerous job as an on the ground combat air controller job that prompted a man who grew to know him only by his voice and humor – Marine pilot Lt. Col. Frank Latt – to take that flag and fly to a small town in Alabama and walk four miles to present it to Forester’s family.

The flag has part of the bullet that killed Forester burned into it.

Latt shared how he came to know the man he never met.

During one mission when soldiers were pinned down in a battle that lasted for hours, Latt was flying an F-18 and was unable to zero in on the target.

That is when Forester while holding a mirror - informed him to look for him as he’d be only one with bullets flying “standing in the middle of a brown field like a big fat dummy.”

Another time when trying to ascertain the location of enemy fire, Forester over the radio informed Latt that “I own the air space from the surface to the moon and I need a fly by now.”

Thad noted that at his brother’s funeral, Mark’s fellow soldiers said they were fighting for small towns like Haleyville, Ala. where Forester grew up.

“They fight for towns like Manteca too,” Thad told the gathering.

Forester was serving as a missionary for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints in nearby Oakland when the terrorist attacks occurred on Sept. 11, 2001.

The 29-year-old Haleyville, Alabama native received a degree in finance from the University of Alabama in 2006 and enlisted in the Air Force in June 2007.

Despite everyone telling him to go in as an officer, he wanted to enlist because he wanted to start from the bottom up. Forester knew his chances of getting better deployment opportunities would be increased as an enlisted airman. He wanted the toughest job the military could offer, and Air Force Combat Controller was what he was looking for.

He was deployed to one of the most coveted areas by Combat Controllers in May 2010, FOB Cobra. He was awarded the Bronze Star Medal with Valor for his heroic actions while engaged in ground combat against the enemy on Aug. 6, 2010.

Forester was fatally wounded during combat on Sept. 29, 2010. He was posthumously awarded the Purple Heart.