Aberdeen Proving Ground unveils monument in honor of Gold Star families, dedicates Legacy Forest

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Amber Baum gasped when the cover was pulled back, revealing a sculpted “battlefield cross” on top of a three-tiered pedestal honoring local Gold Star families whose loved ones were killed in the line of duty while serving in the military.

Baum, 33, of Abingdon, is one of those Gold Star survivors. Her late husband, Army Sgt. Ryan J. Baum, was killed in action May 18, 2007, while serving in Iraq.

Baum, herself a former Army medic, attended the unveiling of the battlefield cross monument Sunday afternoon at the Gold Star Plaza and Living Legacy Forest in the Plum Point area of Aberdeen Proving Ground. She was with her 11-year-old daughter, Leia, with whom she was pregnant when her husband lost his life.

“I gasped and I looked over at Leia, it’s absolutely beautiful,” Baum recalled after the unveiling ceremony, as Gold Star families, elected officials from Cecil and Harford counties — as well as New Castle County, Delaware — and Army leaders and soldiers gathered for an afternoon tea in the nearby Top of the Bay restaurant.

Officials at APG, which has about 28,000 soldiers, civilian workers, contractors, as well as retirees and is Harford County’s largest employer, honor Gold Star families on a regular basis. Events are held to honor Gold Star mothers in the fall — Gold Star Mother’s Day is observed around the nation in late September — and Gold Star spouses and families in the spring.

“Today we gather once again in the never-to-end process of recognizing the sacrifice that all of our Gold Star members make when a loved one dies in service to our great nation,” said Drew Rehkop, lead of the Strategic Initiatives Group at APG’s Communications-Electronics Command (CECOM) and the master of ceremonies Sunday.

He noted that “our Gold Star spouses, mothers and families are an important and ongoing part of today’s military; they remain vital and active members of our community.”

Rehkop also introduced the afternoon’s guest speaker, APG senior commander Maj. Gen. Randy S. Taylor.

Taylor, who has led the Army post for more than two years, will depart in June for a new assignment as chief of staff for the U.S. Strategic Command at Offutt Air Force Base in Nebraska.

Taylor’s successor, Maj. Gen. Mitchell L. Kilgo, is scheduled to take charge during a change-of-command ceremony June 20. Kilgo was slated to be the keynote speaker Sunday, but he had to tend to duties at his current assignment at U.S. Central Command at MacDill Air Force Base in Florida.

Central Command, or CENTCOM, is responsible for U.S. military operations in the Middle East and Central Asia. The USS Abraham Lincoln aircraft carrier strike group USS Kearsarge Amphibious Ready Group and 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit conducted joint exercises in the Middle East last week “in response to credible threat indicators” in the region, according to a news release on the command’s website.

The U.S. ordered military assets to the region as tensions briefly flared with Iran, and defense and national security officials developed plans for further military action against Iran — including the deployment of up to 120,000 troops.

“If you’ve been paying attention to the news, you’ll understand why he’s not able to make it,” Taylor said of Kilgo.

“Still, I’m thrilled — very thrilled — that we have the opportunity to come together to unveil an extraordinary memorial this afternoon,” the general added.

The memorial plaza includes an inlaid black plaque with a single gold star on it, in front of the monument pedestal topped by the battlefield cross. That soldier’s cross includes a rifle with its barrel placed between a pair of boots and a helmet on top of the rifle butt. It resembles the memorials erected in combat zones by service members when their comrades die in the line of duty.

Amber Baum said later that she has a photo of the battlefied cross assembled in Iraq by her husband’s fellow Army Rangers, as well as the many tokens they placed at the cross in his memory.

“It is probably one of my most cherished possessions,” Baum said.

The site includes a foundation for a Living Legacy pavilion that must still be constructed, 54 stones engraved with the names of fallen service members whose families are supported by APG’s survivor outreach services, and a Living Legacy Forest. Multiple saplings have been planted in memory of fallen military members.

“As the trees grow, they will symbolize the life and legacy of that soldier,” said Mike Farlow, survivor outreach services coordinator, who works with the families of fallen service members who live in a six-county region including Harford County and the Upper Eastern Shore of Maryland.

Taylor said post officials conceived the site as a place “for somber reflection that will continue to exist at APG long after we’re all gone.”

Baum later praised Farlow and Taylor for their initiatives to reach out to local Gold Star survivors. She said the memorial site, with its legacy forest, gives families a place where they can “come for silent reflection,” and it will “perhaps not have such a somber weight to it.”

Her late husband, a resident of Aurora, Colorado, was 27 years old when he died of his wounds from small-arms fire sustained during fighting in Karmah, Iraq in 2007, according to an Associated Press story posted on the MilitaryTimes website.

The Army Ranger medic was shot by a sniper during his final mission before he planned to come home to visit his pregnant wife, Baum said. Their daughter, Leia, was born on May 29, 2007, about a week and a half after he died.

“Losing a loved one, for lack of a better word, rewires your brain,” she said.

Baum noted Gold Star survivors “don’t have to explain that to each other, and when we share things it’s just understood and empathized with, and we share that commonality.”

Leia, now a sixth-grader at Edgewood Middle School, said she thinks the battlefield cross monument is “really nice.” She never met her father, but her mother works to bring him to life with many stories and a focus on happy memories.

“For me, I never actually met him, but [my mother] always tries to fill me in on all the funny things he did, all the crazy things he did.”

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