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.”
Luis Ruelas, 28, of Simi Valley, cleans the grave marker of Roy Kenneth de Bruin who served in the Air Force during the Vietnam War. At left is de Bruin’s granddaughter Olivia Ruelas, 16-months old.(Rick Loomis / Los Angeles Times)
Anthony Ferry, 68, of Mission Viejo, visits the grave of his father Clarence, an Army veteran, and his mother Vincenza, on Memorial Day.(Rick Loomis / Los Angeles Times)
Joshua Kidder, 30, holds his daughter Ellie, 4, while his wife Mary, holds Avery, 1 as they greet those entering the grounds of Riverside National Cemetery.(Rick Loomis / Los Angeles Times)
Yvonne Sanchez, 56, sits nearby as her husband Benajmin Sanchez Jr., 47, weaps with his head on the grave of his father Benjamin Sanchez. Sanchez served during the Korean War as a PFC in the Army and died in 1976.(Rick Loomis / Los Angeles Times)
Valerie Coronel, 25, and her daughter Kendyll Wiener, 7, of Riverside, walk through the Riverside National Cemetery on Memorial Day.(Rick Loomis / Los Angeles Times)
Wayne Bixler, 88, of Hemet, Ca., hunts for the grave of his wife Patricia, who died in 2014. Bixler served during the Korean War with the U.S. Navy.(Rick Loomis / Los Angeles Times)
Melissa Meiner, 33, holds her son Jake Rodriguez, 2, while visiting her grandmother’s grave at Riverside National Cemetery.(Rick Loomis / Los Angeles Times)
Thousands of people descended on Riverside National Cemetery for Memorial Day. A ceremony with several speakers, a band and a rifle salute was attended by several hundred people.(Rick Loomis / Los Angeles Times)
Enduring Heroes dedicate an 8-foot bronze sculpture of a combat soldier with an American flag in Defenders Park in Pasadena, CA.(Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)
Gold Star families Irene Ramirez, left, of Pasadena and Deborah Whitley of Altadena, hug during the ceremony for the Enduring Heroes dedication of an 8-foot bronze sculpture of a combat soldier with an American flag.(Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)
Rogelio Lopez, 9, holds a gold star during the ceremony Memorial Day in Pasadena. Rogelio lost his father Marine Lance Cpl, Rogelio Ramirez, 21 in Iraq.(Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)
Congressman Adam Schiff, left, and keynote speaker Army Special Forces LTC David P. Diamond, right, participate in ceremony for the Enduring Heroes dedication.(Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)
Gold Star family Melissa holds her daughter, Olivia Stifter, 3, during the ceremony for the Enduring Heroes dedication.(Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)
Marine Color Guard Sgt. Charles Bagley takes part in the Enduring Heroes dedication.(Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)
An 8-foot bronze sculpture of a combat soldier with an American flag was dedicated in Defenders Park in Pasadena.(Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)
Tatiana Pineda, 27, of Irvine holds her children Mason Pineda, 4, left and Aiden Pineda, 6, right, as they sit next to a memorial in Northwood Community Park in Irvine, CA. Her husband lost friends who were serving in Afghanistan. Their names are etched on the wall.(Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)
Plastic flowers are placed next to the memorial in Northwood Community Park. Each flower had the name of a fallen solder connected to it.(Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)
Vietnam veteran Bill Sandlin, 77, of Irvine, stand next to the newly dedicated memorial in Northwood Community Park.(Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)
Boy Scouts watch Marine color guards during a ceremony honoring the Fallen Heroes at Northwood Community Park in Irvine, CA.(Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)
Bob Tate, 83, of Irvine stand during the ceremony in Northwood Community Park in Irvine, CA. He served in the Air Force for 37 years.(Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)
Tatiana Pineda, 27, and her husband Jose Pineda, 28, of Irvine stand together at a memorial in Northwood Community Park in Irvine. He said they came today to honor the brothers and sisters of the 1st Brigade. Their names are etched on the wall.(Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)
Olivia Akhidenor, 9, posts flags on Memorial Day at Los Angeles National Cemetery. More than 5,000 Cub Scouts, Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts placed flags by more than 88,000 graves.(Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)
Alex Tsai, 11, salutes after posting a small flag on a grave site of a veteran. Over 5,000 Cub Scouts, Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts placed flags by more than 88,000 graves.(Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)
A Dodgers fan waves a lone American fag during Memorial Day weekend game against the Chicago Cubs at Dodger Stadium.(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)
Los Angeles Angels right fielder Kole Calhoun stands for the national anthem before a game against the Miami Marlins. The players wore camouflage colors to commemorate Memorial Day.(Lynne Sladky / AP)
A tourist looks at flowers placed at the front of the Korean War Veterans Memorial on the National Mall at the start of the Memorial Day weekend in Washington, D.C.(MATT CAMPBELL / EPA)
David Pearsons, education and program coordinator at the Brownsville Historical Assn., places flags at the tombs of U.S. soldiers at Old City Cemetery in Brownsville, Texas.(AP)
Boy Scout James Ryan stands at the grave of a veteran at Rose Hill Cemetery in Bloomington, Ind.(Jeremy Hogan/The Herald-Times )
Tourists take photos at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C.(Matt / EPA)
Motorcyclists salute at a wreath-laying ceremony at the Navy Memorial plaza in Washington, D.C.(Pablo Martinez Monsivais / AP)
Members of the U.S. Marine Corps watch as a man does pull-ups in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park as part of New York City’s Fleet Week, which includes a Memorial Day ceremony.(Spencer Platt / Getty Images)
Belgian honor guards march during a Memorial day ceremony at the Henri-Chapelle American Cemetery and Memorial in Plombieres, Belgium. The 57-acre cemetery includes 7,992 U.S. military dead, most of whom died during the advance of the U.S. armed forces into Germany.(Geert Vanden Wijngaert / AP)
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.”