Remembering the fallen, honoring those who serve in harm’s way

Hundreds gather to pay tribute to military men and women of today and yesterday at Tahoma National Cemetery

For Monica McNeal, Memorial Day is a somber occasion, a painful reminder of what she lost more than eight years ago.

Her son, the soldier.

“He (had the) desire to serve. He was meant to serve. He was a fourth-generation Marine,” McNeal told the crowd gathered at Tahoma National Cemetery on Monday for its ceremonial program filled with song and salutes, prayers and tributes, flowers and wreaths.

Lance Cpl. Eric L. Ward, 19, was killed during his first tour of duty in Afghanistan.

McNeal recalls seeing her son, donning Seahawks colors, appearing with fellow Marines in a YouTube Christmas video in December 2009. She took comfort knowing that her son would be home in May. But on Feb. 21, 2010, she came to work to find two Marines waiting for her in her office with the news her son had been killed.

“You can imagine, my life has changed and so has our family and friends,” McNeal said. “I think we all have a higher purpose now in life … that we finally appreciate maybe what we should be doing.”

Because of her son’s death, McNeal has met other people who have changed her life. People who were strangers are now her friends.

Today, McNeal is a Gold Star Mother, a nonprofit organization formed after World War I to support moms who lost a child in a war. As president of the Washington chapter of American Gold Star Mothers, she is a leader and a supporter, someone who reaches out to help other moms, other families who have lost a loved one to a war.

McNeal’s son was laid to rest in Arlington National Cemetery, Va.

“He was born in Virginia. We felt it was the right thing to do for our family,” McNeal said. “I know today there are many people who are visiting his grave … paying their respects.

“Eric’s shallow roots, his short life was intertwined from Virginia to Minnesota, Minnesota to California, California to Washington, Washington to North Carolina, Afghanistan and back to Virginia,” McNeal said of her son’s military life. “The shallow roots of Eric’s 19 years have been intertwined as we continue to help others weather the storm. Not only today, but every day, I want to thank all those who served in the armed forces.”

McNeal was the keynote speaker at a ceremony that welcomed U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., the guest speaker.

“Today on Memorial Day we remember those who have made the sacrifice,” Cantwell said. “We thank them for their service and we thank them for their sacrifice. Thank them for answering the call and embodying the best of what America has to offer.

“Today and every day our nation owes them an eternal debt of gratitude and respect. It is our duty to make sure they are never forgotten.”

Remembering the fallen, honoring those who serve in harm’s way