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Liberty High School graduate remembered at Memorial Day ceremony

TIMONIUM - Army Capt. Sara Knutson Cullen was killed in a helicopter crash in Afghanistan two months ago, and Memorial Day now has new meaning for her grieving family.

To them, Memorial Day is now about Cullen, a helicopter pilot, a wife, a daughter and a cherished friend killed at the age of 27.

Cullen's loved ones shared tears, hugs and fond memories at a Memorial Day observance honoring her at Dulaney Valley Memorial Gardens in Timonium Monday.

Each year, family members of service members from Maryland who have died in Afghanistan or Iraq in the last year are invited to the ceremony.

They were seated underneath a white tent, where they listened to Patriotic music selections and accepted the gratitude of military leaders invited to the ceremony.

Cullen's brother, Keith, sister, Kelly, and godparents, Frank and Mary Messina, attended the ceremony.

This was their first Memorial Day without Cullen, known for her bright smile, singing ability and fearlessness.

"The meaning [of Memorial Day] sure has changed," said Mary. "I have a lot of military in my family, but luckily I could say I hadn't lost anyone until now."

Since Cullen's death, tributes have been frequent.

On a snowy late March morning, Patriot Guard riders stood at attention while her flag-draped casket was loaded into a hearse following her funeral outside St. Joseph Catholic Community in Eldersburg.

Cullen was honored at a pregame ceremony prior to a Baltimore Orioles game April 21 at Oriole Park at Camden Yards. Keith was there with family friend Linda Kafchinski, of Eldersburg, to accept an honorary Orioles jersey.

They got hugs from Orioles manager Buck Showalter and a standing ovation from the thousands in attendance.

In May, Cullen was remembered at a Salute to Armed Forces concert at Liberty High School.

More tributes loom. During her wedding later this year, close friend Amanda Eakle is planning to honor Cullen.

And it is possible in the future that Cullen's family will think of other ways to honor her and benefit a cause at the same time.

Frequently, families of fallen service members organize events and nonprofits in their loved one's memory.

Last year, the family of Marine Staff Sgt. James Malachowski held a fitness challenge at North Carroll High School, his alma mater.

Malachowski, a devoted runner and strength trainer, was killed by an improvised explosive device in Afghanistan in March 2011.

Four years ago, the Dulaney Valley service remembered Army Cpl. Christopher Coffland, 40, who was killed in a roadside bombing in Afghanistan Nov. 13, 2009.

Lynn Coffland, Christopher's sister, returned to the ceremony this year to share her brother's story and discuss the nonprofit created in his memory.

Catch A Lift gifts gym memberships or fitness equipment to wounded veterans so they can start, and maintain, their healing process.

Lynn founded the organization because her brother believed addressing physical fitness led to a healthy mind and body. So far, the Baltimore-based Catch A Lift has offered fitness opportunities for more than 110 veterans who could not afford them.

"As a family, we knew we wanted to do more to remember his great sacrifice," Lynn said.

Catch A Life assisted a Pennsylvania soldier who was shot in the head by a sniper in Iraq. The attack left him blind and with traumatic brain injuries.

"He was sedentary, gaining weight and unmotivated," Lynn said. "He was being cared for by his parents around-the-clock. Catch A Life placed him in the gym of his choice, helped him find a trainer and now he just ran his first 5-K race this month."

He's one person helped by a motivated family that strives to remember him not just on Memorial Day, but every day.

"Through loss," Lynn said, "comes great gain."

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