Fort Gordon ceremony helps grieving families cope during holidays

Tuesday, Dec. 10, 2013 9:11 PM
Last updated Wednesday, Dec. 11, 2013 1:19 AM
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Army Spc. Eric Christian used to be his mother’s little helper during the holidays.

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Two-year-old Aria Tilby holds up her family's gift, a Christmas ornament with a photo of her father, Larry Tilby, Jr., in Freedom Park on post at Fort Gordon during a Remembrance Ceremony.  SARA CALDWELL/STAFF
SARA CALDWELL/STAFF
Two-year-old Aria Tilby holds up her family's gift, a Christmas ornament with a photo of her father, Larry Tilby, Jr., in Freedom Park on post at Fort Gordon during a Remembrance Ceremony.

In the kitchen of her Hephzibah home, he would dice the vegetables and clean the dishes for family meals. At the Augusta Mall, he’d help search department store shelves for gifts and offer to split the costs of relative’s presents.

But this Christmas, there’s no tree in Johnsell Christian’s home. All she has are her memories and a small commemorative ornament with her son’s picture in it that the Fort Gordon Survivor Outreach Service gave her Tuesday. It was part of a ceremony the organization held in honor of 13 local soldiers who have perished.

“People don’t understand how hard it is this time of year,” said Christian, 49. “It’s almost like you’re walking around wearing a mask.”

On Dec. 2, 2012,her son died at age 25 from injuries he sustained in an automobile collision on Fort Bragg in North Carolina.

Christian said the last place she expected to be Tuesday was at Fort Gordon’s Freedom Park telling her story to friends and strangers, parents and their children, and local residents who knew nothing of her life, only the nightmare of her recent past.

But to 100 soldiers and civilians in attendance, Christian was a mother with her memories in need of healing. A handful of surviving children placed a wreath in front of the Survivors Outreach Service’s tree of remembrance, which was dedicated in May 2011 in honor of the soldiers who “gave their lives for our freedom,” according to a nearby monument.

“I want to talk to you about my son,” Christian said to Evelyn Suarez, as the 54-year-old Augusta mother of fallen soldier Spc. Hilda Clayton gave her a hug. “He was my best friend.”

Suarez lost her daughter two days before Independence Day when a mortar system failed during an Afghan National Army training exercise and created an explosion that killed four people and wounded 11.

Suarez told Christian how Clayton, 22, was stationed at Fort Meade, Md., as an Army photographer who documented overseas security missions. The mother said Clayton would come home for two weeks during the holidays and make her legendary dirt cake for family.

“She was my baby,” Suarez said. “She was always happy, with a smile on her face.”

Suarez said speaking with fellow survivors of fallen soldiers and receiving an ornament, which she plans to either hang on her tree or give to Clayton’s husband, Chase Clayton, was a special moment she will forever treasure.

Ruby Morales, 26, of Atlanta, agreed, saying the event was a chance to get together with people who understand what it means to lose a loved one.

Morales lost her younger brother, Army Spc. Guillermo Morales, at the age of 22 last November when he died in a car crash in Texas. He was an eight-year infantryman who was stationed at Fort Bliss and completed a deployment in Iraq in 2009.

“He’d be surprised I was here,” Morales said. “But this makes me feel special and his love of the Army is something I am proud to continue for him.”

Christian said she hopes every Army post conducts an annual event like this.

“It’s a celebration of life,” she said. “An acknowledgement that they served and sacrificed their life for a reason.”

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