A stiff breeze fluttered 6,401 small American flags in the Field of Honor at Veterans Memorial Park as Yolanda Mercado leaned over and added a new one.
It was in honor of her son, Army Private 1st Class Jalfred Vaquenrano, who was 20 when he was killed in Afghanistan on Dec. 13.
Mercado, who lives in Clearwater, was one of six Gold Star parents – those who have lost children to war - attending this morning's quarterly ceremony honoring the dead at the park off U.S. 301.
On this blustery morning, 60 new names of those killed between January and March were read aloud, adding to the 6,401 previously killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. Mercado, wearing a T-shirt bearing an image of her son, placed the flag into a small PVC tube and wept.
"For the first time," she said a few minutes later, "I feel like I am with people who understand."
Chip Shields, a Hillsborough County firefighter and Honor Guard member, said the quarterly memorial, sponsored by the Veterans Council of Hillsborough County, is designed to "let the loved ones of those who made the ultimate sacrifice know they are not alone."
Shields, too, knows about sacrifice. A retired Marine gunnery sergeant, he was in the Beirut Barracks on Oct. 23, 1983, when a suicide bomber drove a truck bomb into the compound, blowing up the building and killing 241 Marines. Shields, buried under rubble, was rescued after a buddy heard his calls for help.
For most of the Gold Star parents in attendance today, taking part in charity efforts that honor their children helps them cope.
Kelly Kowall of Apollo Beach has formed Eyes on the Sky's Project Corregidor, to help raise money to establish a place for grieving troops to find solace at a 1.65-acre spread in Ruskin along the Little Manatee River. The effort is in honor of her son, Army Spc. Corey Kowall, who was 20 when he killed in Afghanistan Sept. 20, 2009.
Toni Gross of Oldsmar is the Tampa Gulf Coast North Chapter president of Gold Star Mothers, which helps the wounded and families of slain U.S. warriors.
"Even some of our own military do not know what this means," said Gross, pointing to a Gold Star lapel pin she wears in honor of her son, Frank R. Gross, 25, an Army corporal killed in Afghanistan on July 16.
Dee and Rob Mills of Masaryktown came out to honor their son, Marine Sgt. Lea R. Mills, who was 21 when he was killed on Apr. 28, 2006 in Anbar Province, Iraq. They created LeasPrayersandPostage.com to raise money to help pay for postage for items shipped to war zones.
Donna Hernandez of Spring Hill hasn't created a charity. She said Saturday's memorial service was a tremendous way to honor her fallen son, Derek Schicchi, who was 27 when he died in Killeen, Tex., on July 19, 2010.
After the ceremony, the Veteran Council's Walt Raysik held a small stack of magnetic numbers.
"This is the worst part of the job," he said, changing the number of those who have died in Afghanistan, from 1,915 that he posted two weeks ago, to 1,933.