Army veteran T.J. Gaia remembers the day in 2005 when a roadside bomb rocked his tank convoy near Mosul, Iraq, fatally wounding four soldiers.
Gaia now honors those soldiers as president of the Washington State Fallen Heroes Project, a nonprofit that recognizes service members killed in action since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
The Fallen Heroes Project, which has about a dozen leading members, helped spearhead the installation of a 24-foot monument at the Spokane Veterans Memorial Arena last year. And since the group was founded in 2010, it has produced nearly 300 banners featuring the names and faces of fallen soldiers.
The memorial banners are regularly transported across the Inland Northwest, making appearances at parades and ceremonies. Gaia said people often look into a sea of banners and recognize a soldier they know or have a connection to.
“I don’t know how many times we’ve heard, ‘Oh, I know that guy,’ or, ‘I went to school with that kid,’ or, ‘I taught that child,’ or, ‘That was my cousin’s best friend,’ ” he said. “There’s some kind of weird connection all the time, and often that sparks conversation with a Gold Star family that gets to share the story of their child.”
Gold Star families are those with an immediate relative who was killed while on U.S. military duty. The Fallen Heroes Project aims to support those families and others affected by post-9/11 warfare.
Its founder is Kim Cole, whose son, Darrel Morris, was killed by an improvised explosive device in Iraq in 2007. The Marine corporal and Ferris High School graduate was on his second tour of duty when he died at 21.
“This started with a mother who didn’t want her son to be forgotten,” said Scot Frazer, vice president of the Fallen Heroes Project.
Frazer said it’s gratifying to see how audiences respond when the banners are carried along a parade route.
“To see the honest reaction, from the child to the elderly person, stop what they’re doing, quit playing on their phones, stand up and pay a little respect for the fallen as they’re carried through by loved ones and battle buddies,” he said, “it restores your faith in humanity a little bit.”
The Fallen Heroes Project doesn’t create a banner honoring a specific veteran until someone requests it. The group’s secretary, Nicole Thomas, said demand is increasing as word spreads about the project.
“One person seeing it can spark three new banners,” she said.
The banners also are displayed at several permanent locations, including Curley’s Hauser Junction, a bar and restaurant in Hauser, Idaho. Frazer, whose uncle was killed in Vietnam, said people frequently enjoy a meal or a beer in the company of a banner depicting a loved one.
“It’s really neat to play a really minuscule part in that” and let “the power of the project do the rest of the work,” Frazer said.
The leaders of the Fallen Heroes Project dedicate much of their time to veterans and their families. In addition to leading the nonprofit, Gaia works as a patient experience officer for the Department of Veterans Affairs.
Sometimes they offer support on a deeply personal basis. Thomas, for example, fielded a call last week from a woman who was distraught over the death of her son, a veteran who committed suicide in 2010. Thomas said she connected the woman with other resources and community groups.
“She had no idea that there was anything for her,” Thomas said. “She didn’t know about the memorial. She didn’t know about the banners. She didn’t even know that there was something to help PTSD loss.”
Gaia said the monument at the arena has been therapeutic for many Gold Star families. But he’s dismayed at how some people treat the sculpture, which includes several curving, waist-high sheets of metal.
“An unfortunate side effect of the design of the memorial,” Gaia said, is that “we’re having an issue with skateboarders and bikers and taggers.”
The sculpture, which resembles a large torch, is named Illuminating Courage. Shortly after it was erected, workers had to install metal tabs to prevent skaters and bikers from grinding on it – but they still find a way to do it, Gaia said.
Maintenance work is covered by sales of the engraved bricks that surround the sculpture. Anyone can order a brick commemorating a U.S. service member and have it installed at the memorial by visiting IlluminatingCourage.org.
Gaia said the Fallen Heroes Project is looking to expand its offerings to include a scholarship fund for siblings of fallen soldiers. Education is a major part of its mission, he said.
Said Frazer, “The biggest thing is just making sure we don’t forget the sacrifices that our veterans made.”