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For families of the fallen, Memorial Day never easy

For many Carolinians, it is merely the third day of a long weekend. For some, it is observed as it was meant to be: a day reserved for the most sacred of reflection.

Yet for families like the Eckards of Hickory, Memorial Day is another painful reminder of loss, separation - of dreams erased.

In a month that began with Navy SEALs killing the world's most notorious terrorist and ends with Memorial Day, there's certain to be residual euphoria among many Americans weary of war.

But for Eunice Eckard, whose bomb-disarming Marine son, Chris, was killed in Afghanistan in February 2010, the day leaves only memories.

Her burden is lightened knowing that Osama bin Laden, 9-11's mastermind, can kill no more. Still, it's another day of navigating the layers of grief.

For her and many others, Bin Laden's death does give the day a sense of accomplishment, some progress. A sense that Chris and other troops like Marine Lance Cpl. Cliff Golla of Charlotte and Army scout Kenny Hess of Leicester, near Asheville, died for a cause.

They are among the 6,013 U.S. troops - 235 from the Carolinas - who have lost their lives in Iraq and Afghanistan since the American-led invasion of Iraq in 2003.

"That's what Chris was over there fighting for," Eunice Eckard said. "So I am glad they got bin Laden, and I know Chris would be, too.

"But I'm not sure how much it's changed things. The boys and girls are still over there fighting."

'Didn't die for nothing'

It's only been 16 months since the Marine officers brought news that Chris was dead.

He was on his fifth tour, his first in Afghanistan, the first four in Iraq. He'd started as a combat engineer, but studied IEDs (improvised explosive devices), the foot-deep, pressure-activated roadside bombs that have killed and wounded so many Americans.

The roadside bombs are the single worst killer of U.S. troops. Attacks continue to rise in Afghanistan, averaging 1,500 a month by the end of 2010. IEDs killed 368 coalition troops last year, and wounded 3,366 U.S. troops.

Chris had safely disarmed hundreds when on Feb. 20, 2010, he worked to disarm yet another in Helmand, at the time Afghanistan's most violent province.

A remote control set it off.

In many ways, the grief is worse now than a year ago.

The renewed observances for Chris and other fallen troops started long before Monday's official holiday.

A Hickory church invited Eunice and her other son, Chad, and three other families for a service last Sunday. The minister, a former Marine, talked about sacrifice.

"He understood what the families are going through," Eunice said. "It tore me up so bad I told my sister that it was worse than the funeral."

Saturday night, Eunice, Chad and Chris' two sons (Steven, 5, and Avery, 2) and widow, Ashley, were to be honored at a Hickory Crawdads baseball game. Monday, they're all scheduled to take part in a Memorial Day parade in Thomasville, 60 miles northeast of Charlotte.

Eunice never turns down an invitation. They're a way to honor her son, and keep his memory alive.

Yet it hurts.

"We are still struggling. Badly," Eunice said. "We're mourning more. Especially Chad. After Chris was killed, he had to handle everything. He didn't have a chance to deal with the loss. I think he's beginning to now."

The public appearances help, Chad said.

They let Americans know what his and other families have lost, and what those still fighting face.

Getting bin Laden helps, too.

"It certainly makes me feel like my brother didn't die for nothing," Chad said. "He was over there doing his part to achieve this ultimate goal that took 10 years. On Memorial Day, I will think about Chris and it will be a sad day.

"But knowing they killed bin Laden brings us some peace."

Always a difficult time

Others know the road doesn't get much easier.

It's been five Memorial Days since Terry Hess' Army scout son, Kenny, was killed by a suicide bomber in Rawah, Iraq, in April 2006.

He was assigned to a cavalry brigade of Strykers, the light-armored vehicles able to move nimbly through the desert. He wrote home often. Not of the fighting, but of red sunsets over the Tigris and Euphrates rivers.

His unit was on foot patrol in Rawah's central bazaar when a man wearing a bomb vest approached and blew himself up.

Those stories have been all too common - the consequences of protecting America.

The news of bin Laden provides some compensation.

"When I heard about it, it was like my football team had made a touchdown," Terry said. "I threw my arms up and cheered. Kenny would have loved it. He'd have been graceful about it, but he would have absolutely loved it.

"I am so proud of our troops for not giving up."

His elation slowly evaporates.

Monday, Terry faces his sixth Memorial Day without his son.

'Like he is here'

Yvonna Golla and her daughter, Lynette Ingram, will face their fifth without Lance Cpl. Cliff Golla.

He was fresh out of Charlotte's Providence High when he joined the Marines. He'd just begun a second tour in Iraq, when he was leading a foot patrol on Sept. 1, 2006, to root out explosive devices. A roadside bomb cut him down.

"As the Memorial Days go by, it doesn't get any easier," Ingram said. "It's still a reminder that he's not here - and how much we miss him."

She knows her brother would have been pleased that bin Laden is gone. It provides the mission an epilogue.

But not to their pain.

"My brother and I were 15 months apart," Lynette said. "It's not going to make a difference whether bin Laden is here or not."

As they have the last four Memorial Days, the family will spend much of the day at Chris' grave at a Pineville cemetery.

His mother, Yvonna, a Polish immigrant, said in her strong accent the family "will act like Chris is still with us."

She will share stories about him. The pranks he played, the kinds of "stupid little things he used to do."

"Cliff believed we were there for reason. So we don't fight the terrorists here," Yvonna said. "But every year is difficult. He was a really happy person. Always joking.

"On Memorial Day, we try to celebrate - be happy. Like Chris would want us to."