Who truly understands the family of a fallen soldier's loss and can help them heal? For Shirley Schmunk of Richland, the answer's clear: "All of us."
Schmunk is currently organizing the first-ever state of Washington 2007 Time of Remembrance and has sent out donation request letters to help financially compensate families trekking to the event.
The event honors families that have lost a soldier in Iraq or Afghanistan.
She's no stranger to the subject matter behind the event. Her son, Specialist Jeremiah W. Schmunk, was killed in Baghdad in 2004.
"The grief of losing Jeremiah is slowly going from unbearable to manageable, in part because of the outpouring of support from family, friends and all the wonderful people across the country who only know me as the mother of a fallen hero," she wrote in her contribution request letter.
According to Washington State Department of Veteran Affairs Community and Public Relations Director Colleen Gilbert, two similar events have been held on a national level, which were hosted by the White House Commission of Remembrance.
Gilbert said that during the first ceremony, Washington state had lost just short of 70 soldiers. Only seven families were able to attend. During the second ceremony, Washington state had lost 77 soldiers. Only two Washington families were able to attend.
Said Gilbert of Schmunk, "Shirley said, 'This isn't right. We've got to bring these families together on more of a local basis'."
Gilbert said that Schmunk first simply picked up the phone and called a National Guard official and asked for a plane to take families from Washington state to D.C. for the ceremony. That wasn't a reasonable request, but it did help Schmunk contact another individual, Tom Riggs of Camp Murray. From that sprang a meeting in which all veterans service organizations were invited and the state of Washington's 2007 Time of Remembrance was born.
Gilbert said an extensive fundraising campaign is currently underway to bring together Washington families who've lost soldiers in Iraq or Afghanistan without financial concerns.
"We still need help. We still need donations," Gilbert said.
The event is slated for Sept. 29 and 30 in Richland and various sponsorship levels are available.
The Tri-Cities group A.C.E.S., which stands for American Citizens Encouraging Support, is the 501 c 3 conduit for tax deductible donations to the event. According to A.C.E.S. founder Carol Boe, so far $23,000 has been raised. The goal, Boe said, is $100,000.
Said Boe, "We've all been working really, really hard to make this happen. We would like to be able to compensate the families better than what we're likely going to be able to do."
It is estimated that $1,000 will sponsor a family and sponsorship levels vary. The highest level of sponsorship is the Soaring Eagle level, which is a donation of $10,000. Donors will receive a flag in a shadow box, recognition in print and radio advertising, on posters and a display booth on the first day of events. Sponsorships are also available for $5,000 (which does include a flag in a shadow box), $2,000 and $1,000. At the Generous Hearts of Giving level, any donation is welcome.
"Every little bit helps," said Boe.
Boe said in-kind donations are more than welcome too.
The first event takes place on Saturday, Sept. 29, at Howard Amon Park in Richland from 1 to 7 p.m. and will include entertainment and food vendors. It will culminate with a candle lighting ceremony at 7 p.m.
The second event is set for Sunday, Sept. 30, from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. at Flat Top Park in West Richland. It will be a commemorative event honoring families and their fallen heroes.
Locally, Lower Valley Honor Guard members from various VFW Posts are banding together to raise at least $1,000 to sponsor a family. "We're all in it together," explained Grandview VFW Ladies Auxiliary member Louise Bianchi. "We just want to work very hard to bring these families together. It's a time of healing for them and for the public."
Gilbert agreed, adding that families bond when they meet other families of fallen heroes. "You've got to have somebody who understands what you've been through."
Donations can be sent to A.C.E.S., P.O. Box 1253, Richland, Wa., 99352. Contribution forms can be downloaded from www.dva.wa.gov.
For more information, call Boe at 509-588-9087.