Amid the Memorial Day parades and services held throughout the Southland on Monday, the families of a group of fallen soldiers and Marines gathered in a Pasadena park for a long-awaited tribute to their sons and daughter.
Several hundred people joined elected and military officials in the city's Defenders Park for the unveiling of an eight-foot bronze sculpture of a soldier holding aloft an American flag. The statue honors the 11 members of the military killed since 9/11 who lived in Pasadena and surrounding towns.
"They were born in Huntington Hospital, they sat in our classrooms … they came from diverse backgrounds with families of all different walks of life," Pasadena Mayor Terry Tornek said in his opening remarks. "The Pasadena community now has a brilliant sculpture that pays everlasting tribute to our hometown heroes — certainly on Memorial Day, but importantly on each and every day."
Sculptor Christopher Slatoff included features from each of the 10 men and one woman in the face of the soldier he created, Shelly Lowe told the crowd, many of whom fanned themselves in the warm afternoon sun. The name patch on the soldier's uniform reads, "Pasadena."
Lowe headed the group that raised the $600,000 needed for the project from donors, and navigated the city's bureaucratic and political waters to see it through.
The idea for the sculpture came in 2014 after Army Staff Sgt. Scott Studenmund, a Green Beret whose family lives in Pasadena, was killed in southern Afghanistan. Lowe's son was a friend and classmate of Studenmund. She approached city officials, saying something needed to be done to remember the soldier and others from Pasadena and its neighboring towns — Altadena, La Cañada Flintridge and San Marino.
Lowe and city officials knew of six Gold Star families — the designation given to families who have lost a member in battle, Tornek said. A search turned up five others.
In addition to Studenmund, the statue pays tribute to: Army 1st Lt. Todd Bryant, 23, who was killed in Iraq in 2003; Marine 2nd Lt. J.P. Blecksmith, 24, who was killed in Iraq in 2004; Marine Lance Cpl. Dion Whitley, 21, who was killed in Iraq in 2005; Marine Lance Cpl. Sergio Escobar, 18, who was killed in Iraq in 2005; Army Reserve Spc. Carla Jane Stewart, 37, who was killed in Iraq in 2007; Army Spc. Adam Rosema, 27, who was killed in Iraq in 2007; Army Pfc. Cory Hiltz, 20, who was killed in Iraq in 2007; Marine Lance Cpl. Rogelio Ramirez, 21, who was killed in Iraq in 2007; Army Spc. William J. Gilbert, 24, who was killed in Afghanistan in 2013; and Army Sgt. Joseph Stifter, 30, who was killed in Iraq in 2016.
"This was a title — Gold Star family — none of us sought," said Ed Blecksmith, whose son followed his father into the Marines. J.P. Blecksmith, who graduated from Flintridge Preparatory School, died while leading his platoon in a battle in Fallujah, Iraq.
The elder Blecksmith drew a connection between the 11 people being honored Monday and the 16 Marines under his command who were killed Sept. 4, 1967, when his platoon was ambushed by Viet Cong soldiers.
"Losing those 16 magnificent young Marines was the worst day of my life, but I had no idea at the time who would suffer a much greater loss for an immeasurable period of time: the families of the fallen back home. That fact came sharply into focus for me when J.P. was killed," he told the crowd.
Blecksmith said the deaths of their children presented a choice to his and the other families: "Do we give up on living or do we choose to celebrate our child's legacy and continue to honor their life and sacrifice? I think the answer to that question is evident.…
"That is why we hold events on Memorial Day and dedicate monuments to the fallen — not to glorify war but to pay an appropriate level of respect to the young men and women who stepped up when they heard the call to serve."
Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Burbank) also spoke, his voice seeming to catch with emotion. "We owe you a debt of gratitude that we can never repay. Indeed, it's a debt we cannot even comprehend," he told the families.
Schiff read aloud the names of the 11 fallen service members as their photos were displayed on a large screen.
He was followed by Marine Lt. Col. David Diamond, the special assistant to the assistant secretary of Defense for special operations. Diamond spoke of how he has grown close to the Studenmund family since the death of their son, whom he commanded at the time.
Slatoff has created several other large-scale pieces in the region and is known for his religious imagery. The Enduring Heroes Memorial, he said, was made in the same vein.
"Basically, I gave them Sunday morning. I gave them resurrection," Slatoff said of the sculpture last week in an interview with KPCC. "This is a sense of dealing with the loss and dealing with everything that should be tragic about this."