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Post-9/11 Wars Not Over For Gold Star Families, Deployed Troops

Amanda Vinicky

Illinois has long had a day to honor Gold Star Mothers. For the first time Monday the state recognized the rest of their families.

Portraits -- black and white sketches -- of men and women, most in uniform, dot panels temporarily lining the capitol rotunda. Dozens of faces. Then dozens more.

1st Lt. Timothy Ryan. Age 30. A marine from North Aurora. Who died May 19, 2003.

Medic Rachel Lacy of Lynwood was only 22 when she died that April. Her face is solemn, lips pursed, her big eyes serious.

The edges of Staff Sergeant Jacob Frazier's mouth turn up in his picture, just slightly, as if he could break into a smile at any given moment. He was 24 when he died on March 29, 2003 in Afghanistan.

Credit Amanda Vinicky
Jim Frazier says he wants the memory of his son, Air Force Staff Sergeant Jacob Frazier, to live on.

"He was the eldest of five children and he was the leader of the mob," Jake's dad Jim Frazier, of Lincoln Hills, says. "He was a very fun-loving guy and I think until he joined the Air National Guard he didn't know what he wanted to do. And then once he was deployed, he was going to make the Air Force his full-time career. He fell in love with that job."

Jim had been a Marine, and says his son was scared to tell him until just before he deployed that he'd joined the Air National Guard.

"And instead, I said: Wow. I'm glad. Good idea.' And then it turned out he took one of the nastiest jobs they have," he said.

The job took him to Helmand Province in Afghanistan as part of a 12-member embed team on the day that decided his fat, some 13 years ago now.

"They were leaving the town of Sangin, that they had a meeting with the elders that actually set the ambush up. And they got caught. They drove Toyota pick-up trucks; they didn't have armored Humvees. And they got ambushed. There was a subsequent firefight. He was in the last vehicle with two Green Berets. The driver, who was killed, and their vehicle came to a stop and Jake and the other guy shot it out until they were killed. So ... they were all killed," Jim says.

The saying goes: "there's nothing like a mother's love."

Illinois has -- and continues to -- designate a day to honoring mothers of fallen soldiers, pilots, marines, medics and the like; it was this past Sunday.

Angel Collins recognized it. She became a Gold Star mother when her son, Lance Corp. Jonathan W. Collins died in Anbar Province, Iraq in 2004.

A year ago or so, she approached her State Rep., Steve Andersson of Geneva.

"And said that while she appreciates the status and the remembrance, what about her husband Jack, her daughter, her children, aunts and uncles, you name it. They all suffer just as much from the loss of Jonathan? Shouldn't they also be honored?" Andersson said. He sponsored legislation that passed the General Assembly with no opposition.

Illinois held a ceremony at the capitol for the state's first Gold Star Families Day.

Gov. Bruce Rauner read the official proclamation: "Whereas during World War I, Americans began flying a flag with a blue star for each immediate family member serving in the armed forces. And whereas the star would be changed to gold if the family lost a loved one in the war. And whereas these families became known as Gold Star families. And whereas we remember our commitment to the Gold Star Families, who carry on with pride and resolve despite unthinkable loss."

Michael Sullivan, who does human resources for the Illinois State Board of Education, was there.

"I've always thought that ... wanting to be a part of Gold Star Mother's Day but wanting to preserve that it is there day, so not wanting to take it away from them ... I know our President signed federally a similar, where we observe Gold Star Family Day but also on Gold Star Mother's Day. So I still felt like we were kind-of co-opting it. So to have a separate day, let's, in my mind, let's them observe it on their day as it was originally intended," he says. And then give wives, cousins, fathers and brothers their own day.

Growing up, there were five Sullivan boys.

Credit Amanda Vinicky
Army Specialist John R. Sullivan died in 2003.

Michael Sullivan was one of the oldest, and says he was close to -- best friends with even -- his brother John.

The boys grew up in the Chicago suburbs. Michael had moved to Springfield before he was 30, and was there on a date that's carved into his memory.

Nov. 15, 2003.

There was a helicopter incident in Mosul, Iraq.

"One helicopter was hit by ground fire and actually as it was trying to maneuver from that, collided with another helicopter.And for the most part ... everybody involved was on their way to R&R. Yeah, so ...at the time .. that was 13 years ago .. that was the largest amount of casualties in an accident," Michael says.

John's family was expected he'd have some downtime, and that they may get to see him around Thanksgiving.

Instead, they never saw him again.

And then there's this: "My brother didn't get to meet twin new-born sons of his own," Michael says.

Michael says so many family members come to mind when you think of who is part of a Gold Star Family; often you don’t consider that it includes kids.

John’s twins were two months old when their father died and had only "met" him via a video screen. They're teenagers living near Seattle now.

Their father, Specialist John Sullivan, rejoined the Army for them.

“I say ‘he did his initial time.' And then came back trying to find jobs -- UPS, stuff like that -- and it just wasn’t happening," Michael says. "And then when my sister-in-law became pregnant, there were various times like, ‘she really needs to go on bedrest.’ So John was like ‘I have to support my family. The one thing that I know I can do is reenlist.’ I wasn’t necessarily supportive of him re-enlisting. But I understood.”

Michael Sullivan says he hopes that people know: his brother joined the army, went to a war zone, to help.

"A lot of people ... they look at war time as: What are we doing over there?" Michael says. "(John) wasn't a combat soldier, he was a mechanic so he wasn’t in the front lines, of … He wasn't there to knock down people's doors and stuff like that. He was there to help the country and not tear it apart."

Jim Frazier, who lost his son Jake early in America's war in Afghanistan, says some people get quiet, and don't like to talk about the loss of their loved ones.

He's the opposite.

Jim had thought he was going to retire; instead after Jake died, he joined with a department of the army program as Northern Illinois' Survivor Outreach Services coordinator. His full-time job is to work with Gold Star families -- relatives of troops who lost their lives in combat, like he lost Jake.

"To provide them a connection, resources, making sure that all their benefits were done and to connect them together. The best healing for families is to be with one another and to share their experiences, and their strengths," he says.

Through that, every day, he hopes to keep his son Jacob's memory alive.

"His four siblings suffer that loss just as badly as his mother and I did. We don't want to leave out all of the family members -- we have grandparents and aunts and uncles and cousin -- who suffer this loss. So to have a Gold Star Family day which is encompassing everyone. You know, we don't have anything but memories. So when we see these portraits with our sons and daughters' faces on it, we smile. When you say: how old was Jake? I'm happy. He was 24. When you use his name - -- it means that you are remembering him too. And we can share that," Jim says.

On Sept. 11, the latest group of Illinois National Guard soldiers mobilized. Some 20 troops out of North Riverside were deployed to Afghanistan.

Eighty airmen from the 183rd Operations Group in Springfield were deployed to the Middle East in July; they're expected to return early in 2017.

Another 30 soldiers from a Military Police Company out of Springfield who left this January are expected back from Afghanistan by year's end.

Amanda Vinicky moved to Chicago Tonight on WTTW-TV PBS in 2017.
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