A mother watched as her 2-year-old, blonde-haired, blue-eyed boy stood in the middle of Arlington National Cemetery on Memorial Day (May 30, 2016) ... hugging the gravestone of his father (Mark Jones (U.S. Army) who had died five months prior.
With heavy hearts, the two journeyed from Fort Campbell, Kentucky, to meet others who understood their loss.
May 30, 2016 - Two-year-old James Jones hugs the headstone of his father, Mark Jones (U.S. Army) ... during a visit to Arlington National Cemetery, VA. (Mark Jones died a few months earlier in December 2015.) James and his mother, Sarah Jones, participated in several events with the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors during the Memorial Day weekend. (Courtesy photo by Sarah Jones)
The scene at the cemetery culminated a full weekend of events dedicated to helping families honor the lives of their fallen service members. Several days prior to the gravesite visit, the families, all wearing buttons with a photo of their deceased loved one, were greeted by the Defense Department's most senior leader at the Pentagon.
Defense Secretary Ash Carter and his wife Stephanie hosted more than 300 family members during family night in the Pentagon as part of the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors' Good Grief Camp on May 27, 2016.
The group of mothers, fathers, aunts, uncles, brothers, sisters, and children each received a coin and personal welcome from Carter before they lined up for a group photo in front of the vast building.
“We draw from you and your example, your strength, we draw remembrance,” Carter told the crowd. “We will never forget this day. We certainly won't forget why you are here. We think of you as forever a part of our family.”
Sarah Jones, the toddler's mother, was told by a friend to come to the camp for support.
“So I decided to jump in head-first and be around people who understand a little bit more what we are going through,” Jones said. “So far it's been overwhelming but even with that, it's been wonderful. I just know wherever I turn, there's going to be somebody there.”
Each branch of the military participates in family night in the Pentagon. With the Army's horses, the Navy's color guard, the Coast Guard's mascot, the Air Force's paper airplanes, the Marine's displays and much more, the evening's event offered a variety of opportunities for survivors to connect and share their stories.
May 27, 2016 - Lt. Gen. William J. Bender, the Air Force's information dominance chief and chief information officer, welcomes survivors of fallen service members during a tour of the Pentagon in Washington, D.C. Defense Secretary Ash Carter and his wife Stephanie hosted more than 300 family members during family night in the Pentagon. (U.S. Air Force photo by Andy Morataya)
Family members were able to don a Coast Guardsman's rescue swimmer's gear and try on an Air Force pilot's flight suit and helmet, most of it about 10 sizes too big for the younger children. Participants were also able to go for a spin in the gun turret of an Army Humvee.
“This is an opportunity to thank the children and the loved ones of a military member who passed and to spend time with them and show them that the contribution they made is so important to us,” said Maj. Gen. Martin Whelan, the Air Force's director of future operations and deputy chief of staff for operations.
Although a family's loss will be forever felt, events such as these help them know that they are not alone.
“It's important to always remember the sacrifices these families have made,” said Lt. Gen. William J. Bender, the Air Force's information dominance chief and chief information officer.
With hearts lighter than when they arrived, but tired from the evening's activities, the mother and son left the Pentagon. Although their loss would forever be felt, they gained friendships that will last a lifetime.
By U.S. Air Force Senior Airman Hailey Haux
Air Force News Service
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