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Balloon launch honors fallen, departed loved ones

Names of Strykers killed in action sent aloft

Kim Neumann signs a Memory Quilt, which memorializes the lives of the 41 5th Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division soldiers who died serving in Afghanistan. /J.M. Simpson

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Jennifer McPhee's eyes filled with tears as she struggled to find words.

Her thoughts centered on her daughter, Megan Olivia McPhee, who passed away in March.  She was 18 months old.

"I think this event is so wonderful; it's a way to remember those we've lost," McPhee said as she tied a message of love to a pink pastel colored balloon.

Several hundred individuals who participated in the balloon release on July 17 at Pioneer Park in Steilacoom joined McPhee.

Sponsored by a number of local businesses and organizations, the event honored and remembered the 5th Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division soldiers killed in Afghanistan. The brigade recently returned from its deployment to Afghanistan.  The 1st Battalion, 17th Infantry Regiment sustained the most losses.

"It began with the idea of wanting to honor the soldiers of the regiment we lost," said Lisa Palmer, the event's organizer.

A woman with clear communication skills and dedication to mission, Palmer's desire to create an opportunity to remember departed loved ones - both military and civilian - grew out of her own loss of a child at a young age.

"I wanted this for my son - and for the soldiers," said Palmer.

Utilizing her Facebook account and networking with colleagues in Soldiers' Angels, Palmer began promoting the idea. In a relatively short period of time, interest in the event grew.

Family members and friends wrote notes of love and remembrance and attached them to a balloon.

"Not only are soldiers from 5th Brigade remembered and honored, but so too are soldiers from 3rd Brigade, 4th Brigade, Marines, the Guard's 81st Brigade, Air Force personnel," added Palmer.

One balloon's note simply read, "To All British Soldiers."

Messages of love and remembrance to service members were attached to red, white or blue balloons.  Many had the word "Hero" written on them. Individuals who wanted to remember beloved children or parents could affix messages to yellow, green or pink pastel balloons.

"This is a healing process," commented Michelle Schulerman.

A bereavement counselor with the Bridges Center for Grieving Children who often works with the children of fallen service members, Schulerman underscored the need for healing.

"What we are witnessing today is a ritual, and ritual is important.  It is important to do something - like lighting a candle or having a special meal - to keep that person alive."

On a nearby table, Judy Fattor, a retired Army officer, had laid out a hand-sewn memory quilt.  Each square on the quilt had the name and picture of the 41 fallen 5th Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division soldiers.

"I love each and every one of these men," said Fattor as individuals crowded around the quilt to write messages of remembrance. "I know what they stand for."

As the moment for the balloon release neared, Chaplain (Capt.) Gary Lewis, 1st Battalion, 17th Infantry Regiment, gave a short prayer of hope and faith. The crowd went silent. Silently, 500 balloons bearing messages of love, hope and remembrance were released into the clearing sky.

"We never forget fellow soldiers," said Sgt. Gordon Woolley, 1st Battalion, 17th Infantry Regiment.

"This is not a one time thing."

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