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Families of fallen service members and the things they keep to preserve memories

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A shoebox marked "Happy Mother's Day."
Lisa Hostetter
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Lisa Hostetter keeps a shoe box in her room, written on by her son Army Pvt. Jonathan Hostetter. The box contains letters and items once belonging to her son.

Family members of fallen service members share the items they've held onto that hold sentimental value and what the Memorial Day holiday means to them.

Some people look forward to the shopping sales, the long weekend or the unofficial start of summer marked by Memorial Day.

But the families of fallen service members find particular importance and meaning in the holiday.

Formerly known as Decoration Day, Americans once gathered at cemeteries to decorate the graves of military members. Jim Freel, a Marine Corps veteran who served and lost his brother during World War II, said the holiday is not the same.

"When we were kids, everybody quit for Memorial Day, and it was a family affair. You visited every gravesite that included any member of your family, and they usually had a speaker at a bandstand in about every town," Freel said. "I don't think it means as much now."

Freel has a room that includes trophies of his service, his brother's Purple Heart medal and other souvenirs. The items remind him of the people he served with and leave him questioning why he survived.

Lisa Hostetter holds on to an old shoebox once belonging to her son Jonathan Hostetter. The box had been given to Lisa containing a Mother's Day gift from her three boys in 2011. On it her oldest son Jonathan wrote "Happy Mother's Day Mom," in green pen and signed the brother's names.

Jonathan joined the Army in September 2012 and was killed on Aug. 23, 2013, in Afghanistan.

The shoe box remains in his mother's bedroom. When asked what she sees, the mother tearfully said, "I see a young man who's no longer with us, but I see my son who was the first one to make us a family. And who was her brother. And I see that he had that box once and he took some time out to say, 'Hey, I want to put this for Mom.'"

Navy veteran Westy Gilbert held onto everything after the passing of her husband Navy Lt. William Gilbert. The couple had two children ages one and six when Gilbert passed.

"I didn't want to make the decision of getting rid of anything," Gilbert said. When they're older she continued "we'll go through things and be able to decide what we want to keep or what we want to get rid of."

Gilbert's mother made quilts out of some of the lieutenant's pajamas, shirts and buttons, and included pictures of the family on the back.

"That's a very special thing for us to have," Gilbert said.

Last year Gilbert and her sons parted ways with a vehicle Lt. Gilbert special order while in Afghanistan. The car held a lot of emotions for the family.

"It brought different emotions sometimes. And sometimes I think, it maybe brought too many emotions if we was to drive it," she said. "But it just symbolized a lot for us."

Through the grieving process, the Gilbert family has found support through the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS). The program allows surviving family members and friends to gather with people who have common ground, Gilbert said.

Gilbert says the significance of Memorial Day has changed since her husband's passing May 27, 2012.

"Obviously, 10 years ago today, my life changed. And since then, it's a time where I can remember my husband, as well as other, the other loss and families, and this is the time where the nation can mourn with us and understand," she said. "Even if it's just one day, it's one day out of the year that we feel that, you know, the nation mourns with us as well.

TAPS provides compassionate care to all those grieving the death of a military loved one. If you are grieving the loss of a service member, or if you know someone who can use support, the TAPS 24/7 National Military Survivor Helpline is always available toll-free with loving support and resources at 800-959-TAPS (8277).

  • Jim Freel, U.S. Marine Corps veteran, surviving brother
  • Lisa Hostetter, surviving mother
  • Westy Gilbert, U.S. Navy veteran, surviving spouse
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When I host Up To Date each morning at 9 a.m., my aim is to engage the community in conversations about the Kansas City area’s challenges, hopes and opportunities. I try to ask the questions that listeners want answered about the day’s most pressing issues and provide a place for residents to engage directly with newsmakers. My email is steve@kcur.org.
Elizabeth Ruiz is a freelance producer for KCUR’s Up To Date. Contact her at elizabeth@kcur.org or on Twitter at @er_bentley_ruiz
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