They spoke of the sacrifices of war, but what united this gathering of people on the eve of Memorial Day was the yearning for peace of mind.
Ten Gold Star families met at an Irvine park Sunday to help dedicate the expansion of a memorial honoring every American service member killed in action in Afghanistan and Iraq. They held hands, they prayed and they revealed nightmarish memories of learning about the deaths of their loved ones — openly sharing so that they can continue to heal, they said.
For those who have lost a child in service to their country, the search for peace "may be never-ending," said Debi Win'E, whose 22-year-old son Trevor Win'E was killed by an improvised explosive device while working as a gunner on an Army truck along the main supply route in Mosul, in northern Iraq. "Everyone has their own way of handling tragedy. We choose to keep honoring these men and women."
A crowd of nearly 300 people joined the families at the Northwood Gratitude and Honor Memorial at Northwood Community Park. Members of different generations posed for pictures next to the etched names of those they cherish.
Organizers also honored Rose Siepka of Lancaster, a volunteer who crafted dog tags with the names and photos of fallen service members for more than 4,000 Gold Star families at her engraving shop. The memorial is etched with more than 6,000 names.
"I support those who support others — that's so important to me," Siepka said.
Boy Scouts strolled through the crowds, passing out white roses, while dogs howled during a rendition of taps.
"For me, it's been 13 years, and sometimes it seems like a whole lifetime has passed. Other times, it's like an hour ago," said Win'E, an Orange resident who is president of the Saddleback Valley chapter of American Gold Star Mothers.
"I want my son's name to stay alive."
Marine Maj. Scott Huesing described the Gold Star parents, spouses, brothers and sisters as "extraordinary people... who continue to love so much, despite their loss."
He urged his listeners to pay attention to the staggering number of veterans who "die after they come home," succumbing to suicide though there are no memorials for these "sons or daughters."
Salina Jimenez of Long Beach lost her husband, Army Sgt. David Almazan, 11 years ago in Iraq. She challenged the audience to choose a name from the memorial and research that veteran's life to better appreciate what service members do daily.
Going into the holiday weekend, she's been scrolling through online posts of folks sharing plans for cookouts, holiday sales and other activities. But for Gold Star families, "our work to spread awareness is our mission," she said.
From the day families learn of a death, Jimenez said, "it's been Memorial Day — every day."