In the absolute silence of the U.S. Southern Command Headquarters, the family members of fallen servicemen and women walked to the center of the room as the name of their loved one was called out.
The walk back seemed to be the hardest part. Tight-lipped and pink-nosed, some clutching tissues, they looked down as a bell was rung in honor of the one who had just been named. One woman made the sign of the cross; two women squeezed hands; a man cried.
There was a finality to the sound of the bell.
More than 65 families gathered Monday afternoon for an early Memorial Day Ceremony at Southcom headquarters in Doral to remember those they had lost.
“It was the knock on the door that changed our lives forever,” said guest speaker Karen Kelly, a member of American Gold Star Mothers Inc., an organization for mothers who lost a son or daughter in a war. “They are the best of our country, part of the 1 percent who were able to look past their own needs to serve the needs of the many.”
The ceremony began with children. Ten pre-school students from the Children of the U.S. Army Garrison-Miami Child Development Center recited the Pledge of Allegiance. Then a special tribute to the soldiers played on a large screen. The fallen soldiers’ baby pictures filled the screen. Each guest was given a pack of tissues wrapped in a red, white and blue star ribbon for the tears that ensued.
“This year we wanted to show that the families sent their babies to war,” said Maddie Husta, survivor outreach services coordinator for Southcom.
Images of babies were followed with the soldiers as adults, most in their military uniforms. Laughs filled the room when an image of Tim Bohall’s son, Thomas Bohall, came on the screen. A baby, no more than a few months old, in huge cowboy boots.
“When Thomas was born he was always calling after my boots, so one day we put them on him and just had a little fun with it,” Tim Bohall said. “He chewed on Daddy’s boots.”
The Kansas boy was recruited into the U.S. Army in 2006 when a recruiter saw him take first place at a marathon. He was 19.
“Thomas was a real team player,” said Tim Bohall, of Weston. “I think the family nature of the army appealed to him.”
Sgt. Thomas Bohall joined Pathfinders, and was responsible for securing areas before forces arrived, rescuing soldiers from fallen helicopters and other vehicles and cleaning out buildings where insurgents built bombs.
That’s what Thomas Bohall was doing when he died. On May 26, 2011, Memorial Day Weekend, he was sent to clean out a bomb-making facility that had already been cleaned before. Pathfinders suspected it was being used as a drug warehouse and went back in. What they didn’t know was that insurgents had filled the building with booby traps.
A team of 10 went into the building; none came out.
“He was the first one out of the helicopter,” Tim Bohall said, “and the first one killed.”
He was 25.
Monday’s ceremony is the first of many ways Tim Bohall will be remembering his son in the coming week.
“You are able to go through this and kind of work through your grief that comes every year and then when you go to the other services, it’s not quite so hard because you’ve been through it once already,” he said.
Coping with grief is nothing new for some parents.
Wearing a red ribbon with a picture and five rubber bracelets with her son’s name, Annette Kirk, president of the Tampa chapter of Gold Star Mothers, remembered her green-eyed baby boy, who became private first class Paul “Doc” Cuzzupe.
Cuzzupe joined the army in July 2009 as a medic. His fellow medics nicknamed him “Carebear.”
“He had a very caring nature and he loved children,” Kirk said.
Two weeks before he died, Cuzzupe was called out to render aid to an Afghan child who had lost both legs and an arm from the explosion of a homemade bomb. The child eventually died from the injuries, but Cuzzupe was awarded an Army Commendation Medal.
But on Aug. 8, 2010, a homemade bomb took the 23-year-old’s life, as well.
Families at Monday’s service joined together and found some solace from the isolation of loss. They patted each other on the back. They handed each other tissues. They held hands. They hugged. They were the mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, wives and husbands of a hero.
“They are called fallen heroes, but I don’t believe Thomas is a fallen hero. I believe he stood tall for America,” Tim Bohall said. “I also don’t believe he is a hero because of the way he died. I believe he is a hero because of the way he lived. And the way he lived is what allowed him to volunteer and become one of the few that stood up for our country.
“That’s what made him a hero.”