Army Pvt. Eduardo Cardenas didn’t mind working Saturday at Cottrell Field on Fort Stewart. He said it was important to be there.
"I am glad they chose me to do this," said Cardenas, who is assigned to the 385th MP Company and among the soldiers detailed to support the 11th annual Wreaths for Warriors Walk wreath laying ceremony.
"This is about honoring soldiers who have fallen," he said. "It’s paying respect where it’s due. It’s a chance to honor them and ensure they’re not forgotten. It’s so they’ll always have a spot in military life, they’re always in our hearts and they’re not forgotten."
Forgetting isn’t an option for the families of 3rd Infantry Division soldiers who died in operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom.
Among those families are the parents of Pvt. First Class Andy Habsieger, Mike and Brenda Habsieger. With them was his former first sergeant, Kieran Vernon.
The Habsiegers came from Festus, Mo., a distance of some 770 miles. Vernon drove over from Richmond Hill. They sat together during the ceremony, then walked over from the stands at Cottrell Field to Warriors Walk.
"They’re family," Vernon said of the Habsiegers.
"He’s family," Brenda Habsieger responded, showing a name tag that identified him as such.
Together, they tended to tree No. 402, one of 486 planted since 2003 as living memorials.
Andy Habsieger, serving with 4th Battalion, 64th Armor Regiment, was killed in August 2008. Only 22, he’d only been in Iraq six months when an IED attack ended his life and changed that of his family.
"All he ever wanted to do was enter the military," Mike Habsieger said, noting their other son is also an Iraqi war veteran. "He was denied at first because of migraine headaches. He had to prove he could go a full year without contracting another migraine, and he did, then immediately enlisted."Vernon can remember the day the Habsiegers’ son was killed. He said he felt it his duty to reach out to the family and they formed a bond that has lasted for several years.
"I made a promise that I would be here," he said.
"It wouldn’t be the same without him," Brenda Habsieger said.
A stirring tribute
For the last 11 years, volunteers such as retired Lt. Col. Tony Justi, Bruce Munchen, Susan Ammons and retired Sgt. First Class Jeff Fornshell have spearheaded the nonprofit Wreaths 4 Warriors Walk, a Hinesville-based group that makes sure each of the trees at Warriors Walk has a wreath for Christmas.
"We do this for the family members and we’re honored to do it," said Ammons, the group’s vice president of ceremonies.
She said that while the group can always use financial support - the wreaths are $15 each - it’s well supported by people from around the U.S.
"Once we started, and once people found out what a wonderful thing it is, we pretty much get enough to cover the cost," she said.
Some of the trees at Warriors walk would be bare if not for wreaths and ornaments placed by volunteers. Others include mementos left by family members, fellow soldiers and friends.
The walk is a stirring reminder of the sacrifices made in the name of freedom, Marne Task Force Commander Col. Sean Bernabe said.
"I’m grateful for this place," he said. "This hallowed ground ensures we will never forget our comrades in arms, our husbands and wives, mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters. This is a constant reminder that freedom is not free."
But it’s more than a monument, Bernabe added. It’s a place to commune and to "steel our own resolve," he said.
Family members of the 3rd ID soldiers memorialized at Warriors Walk show concern for those still serving, Bernabe said.
"I am grateful for our Gold Star families," he said. "The unimaginable pain they bear every day, and yet they ask us how we’re doing. They personify warrior-like strength, and resolve, and resilience."
It’s not easy
"It’s been nine years, and it’s still very sad, very hard," Brenda Habsieger said. "I guess you could say you learn to live with it. It’s not easier. You just learn to cope."
Andy Habsieger was "a funny kid," his mother said. "He entered a room and he made you laugh. But he believed in the cause. I don’t care what political status you have, he believed in what he was doing."
Serving that cause was something Andy wanted to do since 9/11, his father said.
"He pursued it, he was very proud of being able to do it," Mike Habsieger said.
When someone standing nearby said his son was a hero, Habsieger quickly resonded.
"They’re all heroes," he said. "The ones that came back alive, and the ones that didn’t. They’re all heroes."
Before the ceremony, old soldiers and various groups with military affiliation gathered to swap stories.
Among them was retired Navy Chief Petty Officer Ernie Mitchell, a Vietnam veteran and member of the Pembroke American Legion.
"It’s an honor to be here, and it’s good to see all these fine young people," Mitchell said. "All these soldiers that are in a war. Most people don’t realize these young fellows are risking their lives, they’re here today, they could be gone tomorrow. Most people don’t realize that when they see them around town."