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Brandy, Alison and James Malachowski watch as students take part in the fitness challenge in honor of Staff Sgt. James M. Malachowski, who was killed in Afghanistan last year, at North Carroll High School May 23.
Brandy, Alison and James Malachowski watch as students take part in the fitness challenge in honor of Staff Sgt. James M. Malachowski, who was killed in Afghanistan last year, at North Carroll High School May 23. (DAVE MUNCH/STAFF PHOTO , Carroll County Times)

For many, Memorial Day will mean an extra day off, a trip to the beach, or maybe a parade. For families of fallen soldiers, it will mean a day of reflection.

As of May 23, there have been 6,459 U.S. casualties from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors, commonly called TAPS, will be holding its 18th annual National Military Survivor Seminar in Arlington, Va. The seminar began Wednesday and continues through Monday, and has programs for families of survivors, from young to old, including art therapy, yoga and support groups.

Alison Malachowski, whose son Staff Sgt. James M. Malachowski was killed in March 2011 by an improvised explosive device in Afghanistan, planned to attend the event this weekend with her daughter.

Malachowski, of Westminster, said she's interested in the various classes and seminars that deal with the grieving process, especially since everyone grieves differently.

"I think one of the best things that families get out of participating out in the TAPS Military Survivors Seminar is the ability to connect with other families who have experienced a similar loss," TAPS spokeswoman Ami Neiberger-Miller said.

Barbara Van Dahlen, the president and founder of a nonprofit foundation for mental health professionals, founded Give an Hour in 2006 after realizing the mental health field was not prepared enough for the veterans coming back from war.

"Because of my training background in mental health, we learned a lot about post traumatic stress syndrome because of the Vietnam veterans. So I thought 'Okay we're going to be in great shape to handle this,'" Van Dahlen said.

The length of the wars and soldiers who face several deployments changed how mental health professionals treat soldiers, veterans and their families, Van Dahlen explained.

Give an Hour donates counseling by mental health professionals for active duty members of the military, veterans, families and their communities. While Give an Hour is based out of Washington, D.C., healthcare professionals donate their time all over the United States. As of November 2011, there have been 46,000 hours of counseling donated to those involved in the military.

Next, Van Dahlen is hoping to educate and inform the communities of those with deployed or fallen soldiers.

Uniting a community

Surviving families face conflicting emotions in their community after a soldier dies, Neiberger-Miller said.

"With military loss, families are kind of asked to step forward to play a role in their community. The family is often asked to comment in public very soon after the death," Neiberger-Miller said.

A death of a soldier can bring a community together, Malachowski learned. As news of her son's death spread throughout different media outlets, Malachowski said her family received requests for interviews from both local and national newspapers and television stations.

While the sudden media attention was something the Malachowskis had to get used to, knowing that people wanted to hear about who her son was and what he was like meant the family could keep his memory alive, she said. On Wednesday, North Carroll High School held a fitness challenge in honor of James Malachowski.

Without the help and compassion of local community members, Malachowski said she doesn't know how her family would have made it through the first few weeks after her son's death.

Cyndi Ryan, manager of the American Red Cross of Central Maryland, was particularly helpful, Malachowski said, and made sure everything that needed to get done, such as planning the wake, got done without being pushy.

Brandy Malachowski, James' older sister, said other friends and neighbors helped with dishes, picking out flowers for the funeral and anything else they could think of.

Something that Brandy will never forget is the long line of American flags placed along the roadway during the funeral procession, she said, and the large number of people who came out to honor her brother.

"The community with everything it did for us took our mind off what we were going through," Brandy Malachowski said. "They showed us they loved Jimmy and they loved us and they believed in what he did. In their own way, they were mourning and supporting us and that meant so much to us."

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Celebrating through service

Carol Roddy has been busy since her son Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class David Sean Roddy was killed in Iraq in 2006 by a roadside bomb.

A year after his passing, Roddy discovered the American Gold Star Mothers program, a national service organization created for those who have lost children in the military. Roddy, a Harford County resident, reignited the Maryland branch in 2007 and now has 55 current members who perform a range of volunteer activities, from assisting wounded soldiers, to sending care packages to Iraq and Afghanistan.

"The Army has been wonderful including us on different ceremonies, realizing that we're survivors just like the guys coming back from the wars," Roddy said. "We're survivors also."

Neiberger-Miller explained families are often incredibly involved in military service after a soldiers' death. For the first few months, it can be jarring to handle how society deals with military deaths.

"People will come up to the family and say 'Thank you for your family's sacrifice.' For our families sometimes that feels really hard to handle, because people are thanking you because your loved one died, because of how they died," Neiberger-Miller said, emphasizing Roddy's view that families are also survivors. "I think families would prefer 'Thank you for your family's service to this country.'"

Roddy described the American Gold Star Mothers program as a way to give back. Roddy and her husband visit Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport regularly to greet incoming service members.

The Maryland chapter has a focus on wounded soldiers but also assists in other volunteer activities. They meet bi-monthly in Fort Meade and have members all over the state. Roddy said the Gold Star Mothers are younger than when the group formed after World War I, and are often still working, so it can be hard to volunteer.

"What is a Gold Star Mother? That's the problem, no one understands what it is," Roddy said. "Especially with Memorial Day coming around, people think of hot dogs and the beach. They don't think of why they can get there."

Times staff writer Caroline Hailey contributed to this article.

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