York County Gold Star families prep for Memorial Day, reflect on fallen children
Years ago, a typical Memorial Day for the Slutman family consisted of a cookout.
This coming Memorial Day, however, the Slutman family will be observing the holiday much differently — as they will attend a memorial service for their late son, Christopher Slutman, who died in April as a result of a roadside bomb in Afghanistan.
"I talk to dead people. The first thing I did that night is when I went upstairs to bed, and I said, 'Mom, Chris is coming up. Take care of him,'" said Fletcher Slutman Jr., Christopher's father, of the night he found out about his son's death.
Christopher, who joined the Marine Corps reserve, was also a New York City firefighter. He was inspired to join the military to follow in the footsteps of his brother, Peter, also a Marine.
Fletcher Slutman, of Lower Windsor Township, said Christopher would have returned home one week after he died.
"It just happens, and you have to be able to get this phone call," Fletcher Slutman said. "Just a couple more days, and he would have been back, and I'd be talking to him."
On Monday, Fletcher Slutman said, he will be attending two services, at the Veterans Memorial Gold Star Healing & Peace Garden and at Penn Park in York City.
Cher Kondor, the founder of the Gold Star memorial garden, is a Gold Star mother whose son, Martin, died in a roadside bombing attack in Iraq in April 2004.
Now in the garden's seventh year, Kondor is once again devotedly working in preparation for Memorial Day.
On Wednesday, while gardeners and volunteers planted calla lilies, knockout roses and dwarf Russian sage — among dozens of other perennials — Kondor was in the process of acquiring outdoor chairs for a number of events taking place at the garden Monday.
At 7:30 a.m. Monday, the annual York Gold Star 5K will commence. Registration is $25 and can be done online or the day of the event.
Participants can choose to partake in a 5K running race, a noncompetitive 5K walk or a 9-mile “Tour the Memorials," in which people can run, bicycle or walk while sightseeing war memorials in York City.
After winners for the race are announced, a "Hero's Unveiling" ceremony will take place at 9 a.m. to honor soldiers who died in battle this year.
In addition to three soldiers from Pittsburgh, two soldiers with ties to York County, Ben Hines and Christopher Slutman, will have their names unveiled at the ceremony.
Mike Stebbins, who has been instrumental in the garden's appearance and landscaping since the beginning, said he has both a professional and personal responsibility for maintaining the gardens.
Whether sourcing plants and gardening supplies or fixing loose bricks and stones, Stebbins has been steadily working with others to prepare for Memorial Day.
"I cannot believe the amount of time that she gave to the development of this garden," Stebbins said of Kondor's efforts. "It's a shame more people don't know it's here."
The garden, nestled at 1000 Vander Ave., serves as both a memorial space and a "tool in the toolbox for the healing process," as Kondor put it.
Beginning with construction in December 2011, the garden was officially dedicated and opened to the public in June 2012.
With symbolic themes illustrated through walkways, flowers and architecture, Kondor said, the garden aims to fully provoke all five senses in anybody who strolls through it.
Three circular paths, each composed of a different material, encompass a series of seven different garden rooms.
Green trees dot the pathways, creating a layer of shade, as a cascading river nearby forges a sense of serenity and peace. Bright flowers of red, yellow and blue, among other colors, poke from the ground to greet visitors.
They represent the Army's seven distinctive core values: courage, duty and service, integrity and remembrance, healing, fidelity, valor and honor.
After receiving the belongings of her late son, Kondor found several notebooks with the core values scribbled repeatedly on the pages, she said.
"I could tell he was trying to understand what they were on a deep level, and become the embodiment of them," Kondor said. "It wouldn't just speak to military, but to all people, and interpreting those things in color — and living color — so the earth itself could be part of the commemoration."
After the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attack, Martin, a senior in high school, sat down with his younger brother at their dining room table to discuss what they could do to help.
"(Martin) went to New York to the Twin Towers site several times, and each time he came back, he was even more resolved," Kondor said. "He came home, slapped some papers down on that same table and said, 'I'm joining the Army.'"
Martin, a specialist assigned to a tank regiment, earned the Bronze Star Medal with the valor device for his actions in Iraq. A bench with Martin's name etched into the marble sits at the top point of the star-shaped garden, surrounded by bright flowers and trees.
Sherry Rishel, of Springettsbury Township, volunteers every so often at the memorial garden.
Rishel, who attended Martin's funeral back in 2004, has two sons, Paul and Drew, who are both in the military.
"When I found out this park was being made, I wanted to be a part of it because I just couldn't imagine losing a son," Rishel said. "That realization that it could be one of my sons as well just compels me all the more to support Gold Star."
Rishel often helps out Kondor with pulling weeds and maintaining the beauty of the garden. She said she also comes to the garden to pray for service members and Gold Star mothers.
Ann Sherman Wilcott, of Spring Garden Township, has been a Gold Star mother for 50 years.
Her son, Rex Sherman, died at the age of 18 while he was serving as a private during the Vietnam War. Upon his death, Sherman was promoted to the rank of corporal.
"Of course, every mother thinks their son was the best — but of course he was," Wilcott said.
Wilcott, who served as the national president of the American Gold Star Mothers from 2003 to 2004, has been surrounded by the military her entire life, having family members who served in the Civil War and World War II, she said.
Wilcott spent four years in the Navy Reserve.
Sherman, with the guidance of his father who was also serving, enlisted in the Army at 17.
And, on Nov. 19, 1969, Wilcott said she received the news that her son had been shot by enemy fire.
"I couldn't believe it; I ran down the hallway screaming," Wilcott said. "I was devastated."
At the Gold Star Healing & Peace Garden, Wilcott said, Kondor has placed a memorial brick with Sherman's name in the garden.
On this upcoming Memorial Day, Wilcott said she would be traveling to Washington, D.C., to attend a memorial service for her friend.
"I think it's important for people to remember what Memorial Day means — it doesn't mean picnics and ball games and having fun — it means that it's time to remember who served their country and sacrificed their life for the United States of America."
— Reach Tina Locurto at email@example.com or on Twitter at @tina_locurto.