The troops stood, ramrod straight, in their Army and Marine Corps dress uniforms, in silence, each man and woman giving a slow salute with a white-gloved hand as the name of a fallen service member was called.
Surviving family members of the 29 fallen service members stood as their loved one’s name was called and the troops saluted. The ceremony was conducted late Sunday morning during the annual fall observance of Gold Star Mothers’ and Families’ Day on Aberdeen Proving Ground.
The ceremony, which was followed by a brunch for the Gold Star survivors at the nearby Top of the Bay restaurant, happened at APG’s Gold Star Plaza and Living Legacy Forest. The Harford County Army post hosted Gold Star families from the area in Maryland, Delaware and Pennsylvania served by APG’s survivor outreach program, which supports the surviving relatives of military service members and retirees who have passed away.
A prior group of Gold Star families visited the plaza and forest in May, when the sculpture of battlefield cross — a rifle, helmet and pair of boots combined to form a rough cross — was unveiled. A concrete pad for a Living Legacy pavilion was present at the time; those who visited the plaza for Sunday’s ceremony saw a completed pavilion.
The uniformed troops placed 29 memorial stones, each inscribed with the name of a fallen service member who had a connection to APG, within the plaza. The stones placed Sunday brings the total number in the plaza to 83, according to Gregory Mahall, a spokesperson for Aberdeen Proving Ground.
Maj. Gen. Mitchell L. Kilgo, who became senior commander of APG in June, was the guest speaker. He paid tribute to the fallen and their families, whom he said “have lived a pain few of us can imagine." Kilgo thanked his predecessor, Maj. Gen. Randy S. Taylor, for his initiative to develop the plaza and legacy area as a place where families can visit and reflect and remember their loved ones.
Taylor has departed APG for a new assignment with U.S. Strategic Command at Offutt Air Force Base in Nebraska, but he was represented Sunday by his spouse, Lucas Taylor.
“Together we will ensure we pass our inheritance of liberty on to future generations,” Kilgo said of the Gold Star families.
Following the ceremony, the group headed to the Top of the Bay restaurant for brunch and a special remembrance of each fallen service member. The troops who placed the memorial stones on the plaza also gave a brief presentation about each of the deceased while a photo of them was projected onto a screen.
The troops met with the Gold Star families prior to the event to learn more about each family’s loved one and obtain the information they read during the brunch, according to Mahall.
“That was so touching,” said Janice Chance, president of the Gold Star Mothers Maryland Chapter.
Chance, whose son, Marine Capt. Jesse Melton III, was killed in action in Afghanistan in 2008, said the idea of showing photos of the fallen, putting faces to names, “leaves an indelible impression on the eyes and ears of people — it made them come to life.”
Those remembered Sunday lost their lives due to multiple circumstances, not just combat. A Gold Star survivor is a person whose parent, sibling, child “or other loved one dies in service to the nation,” according to an Army web page on Gold Star families.
The name comes from the banner, bearing a gold star, hung by families to symbolize a loved one lost while serving in the U.S. military during World War I; those banners replaced emblems bearing blue stars that families would hang to indicate they had a relative in the military during the Great War, according to the page.
Some of the 29 fallen included Senior Airman Gilnord Charles, of the Air National Guard, who died in 2011 after collapsing while training to enter the Baltimore City Police Department academy; Army Staff Sgt. Travis Bradley was killed by Harford County Sheriff’s Office deputies in March of 2016 after a lengthy standoff with police at his Bel Air townhouse community.
Bradley had been assigned to APG, and police said at the time they believed he was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. Mahall, the post spokesperson, confirmed in an email Monday that “PTSD was a factor due to the multiple deployments.”
“Bradley was just a few days away from starting a special program at Walter Reed [National Military Medical Center] because of his situation,” Mahall added.
Army Sgt. Clayton Michael Willey took his own life on April 11, 2013, according to his mother, Linda Willey.
Linda Willey, of Joppatowne, was among the Gold Star survivors who attended Sunday’s event — she came with her brother, Bert Mooney. She said her son, who was 24 years old when he died, had been diagnosed with “some PTSD” and was dealing with other personal issues such as difficulties in his marriage.
Clayton Willey was assigned to Ft. Hood, Texas, and had recently returned to the post from a deployment to Afghanistan. He had also been deployed to Iraq, and he was receiving treatment on and off the post, his mother said.
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Willey said her son, who had been a member of the Jarrettsville Young Marines in middle and high school, joined the Army Reserve in 2006, during his junior year at Joppatowne High School. He split his basic training between his junior and senior years and graduated from Joppatowne in 2007.
Clayton was a military policeman while in the reserves and served as an MP when deployed to Iraq. He later joined the active-duty Army and was in the Signal Corps; he was with the Signal Corps when he was deployed to Afghanistan, his mother recalled.
Linda Willey noted her son “was destined to be in the military,” as she and her husband, Bob, are both retired Air Force master sergeants, plus his older brother, Darin, is a Marine Corps veteran who had three deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan over eight years in the Corps.
“I think seeing his brother go off to war . . . I just knew he wanted to serve his country, too,” she said of what motivated Clayton to join the military.
Willey praised APG’s survivor outreach program, saying staff “have always done an outstanding job” of caring for surviving military family members, as well as the ceremony Sunday and the development of the Living Legacy location.
“I am just very thankful that they took the time to honor our fallen family members,” she said of APG officials. “It’s nice that they have a place that we can come to at any time and just be there.”
Michael Farlow is APG’s survivor outreach service coordinator, assisting the survivors of military service members and retirees who have died. Survivor outreach programs are designed to support family members who live in the vicinity of a U.S. military installation. Call 410-278-2435 for more information.