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For families of the fallen, every day is Memorial Day

In all likelihood, today will be the last Memorial Day of the longest war in American history.

The war in Afghanistan is winding down. The Iraq War has been over for three years.

Fewer Americans are coming home in flag-draped coffins. In March, for instance, not a single U.S. soldier was killed in combat. That is the first time in more than a decade.

Since 2001, the war on terror has taken the lives of some 6,800 American troops and wounded more than 50,000 of them.

For the families left behind, every day is Memorial Day. Roughly 80 families in the Tampa Bay area have lost loved ones in Iraq and Afghanistan, according to a Tampa Bay Times accounting of war deaths.

They put fresh-cut flowers on gravestones. They fund scholarships and get tattoos and maintain Facebook pages in the name of the dead. When they grow weary of grieving in private, some grieve together in groups.

Many of them feel a disconnect from the public, which seems barely aware the war is still going on.

"With U.S. troops at an all-time low in Afghanistan since 9/11, the public tends to forget that we are still at war," Toni Gross of Oldsmar said. "However, with the advent of warm weather in Afghanistan, the mountain passages that were impassible are now open for traffic by the Taliban."

In other words, the summer fighting season is about to begin again, likely leading to one last spike in combat deaths before the war's end. President Barack Obama has ordered the Pentagon to prepare for a withdrawal from the country by the end of the year.

Gross lost her only son, 25-year-old Army Cpl. Frank Gross, to a roadside bomb in Afghanistan in 2011.

These days, she volunteers in the spinal cord injury unit at the James A. Haley VA Medical Center, and at Tampa International Airport's USO center. She established a scholarship in her son's name at Indian Rocks Christian High School. She is president of Tampa Bay's chapter of American Gold Star Mothers, a service organization for families who have lost loved ones in war.

She hopes her son is proud.

In Plant City, Wrenita Codrington basically shut down for years after her middle child was killed in Afghanistan in 2007. Army Sgt. Cory Clark, a 25-year-old father of four, had been rebuilding a bridge with other soldiers near the Pakistan border when a suicide bomber struck.

"You ask, 'How bad was it? Did he suffer?' It's a great loss when you lose a child and you don't know if you're getting all of him back," she said.

One day, Clark's old platoon leader called her with a question.

"His wife was pregnant. He wanted a name of character for his son. He asked if it would be okay to name him Cory."

Almost all of these parents are mourning sons. Not Cedric Gordon.

A retired St. Petersburg assistant police chief, he lost his only daughter, 24-year-old Army intelligence analyst Brittany Gordon, to a suicide bomber in Afghanistan in 2012.

"Rarely does a moment go by that I don't think about Brittany," Gordon said. "I'm reminded of her everywhere I go."

He started a scholarship in her name at Howard University. He visits her grave.

Pictures of her are displayed in his house. One of his favorites: father and daughter together at her military graduation, Brittany in fatigues, Cedric in a T-shirt she bought him. It reads, "My daughter wears combat boots."

∂ ∂ ∂

U.S. troops have been in Afghanistan since October 2001, just after 9/11. In that war, more than 2,300 U.S. troops have died and nearly 20,000 have been wounded, according to the Pentagon. In the Iraq War, nearly 4,500 died and about 32,000 were wounded.

Roughly 33,000 U.S. troops remain in Afghanistan, a significant drop from 100,000 in 2011.

Yolanda Mercado of Largo wishes her son had made it out. She lost 20-year-old Army Pfc. Jalfred D. Vaquerano to enemy small-arms fire in 2011.

The English as a Second Language teacher at Clearwater's Plumb Elementary School recently got students to write 742 thank you cards to go in care packages for overseas troops.

Her car is a mobile memorial for her son, with his pictures displayed on the windows, along with where and why he died.

"Sometimes at a traffic light, people will say, 'Thank you.' "

Memorial Day started in the 1860s as Decoration Day, a day for placing flowers on the graves of those killed in the Civil War. Over time the name Memorial Day became more widely used.

In 1968, Congress moved it from May 30 to the last Monday in May, creating a convenient three-day weekend. Some groups like the Veterans of Foreign Wars feel this has diminished the day's significance.

Some soldiers are memorialized more publicly than others.

Medal of Honor winner Paul R. Smith has two local middle schools named after him, in Holiday and Citrus Park.

In 2003, his troop of 16 combat engineers got ambushed by 100 Iraqi soldiers outside Saddam International Airport in Baghdad. He climbed atop an abandoned armored vehicle and single-handedly manned a .50-caliber machine gun, holding off the Iraqis so his men could retreat.

Smith left behind a widow and two children who sometimes wondered why he had to be so brave. Birgit Smith keeps her husband's Medal of Honor in a safe-deposit box. But she keeps his name inscribed in ink on her shoulder, encircled by a heart.

Annette Kirk of Seffner is the local vice president of Gold Star Mothers. She lost her son, 23-year-old Army combat medic Paul Cuzzupe II, to an improvised explosive device in Afghanistan in 2010. "I am in a very dangerous and bad place right now," Cuzzupe had written to friends on Facebook.

Kirk recalls how his smile could light up a room. She maintains a Facebook page in his honor, distributes the music he composed and played, works to improve Veterans Memorial Park on U.S. 301, and plans fishing trips for Gold Star families.

She's the keynote speaker at today's ceremony at C.W. Bill Young VA Medical Center, formerly called Bay Pines.

"All of us moms strive for the same thing," she said, "To help veterans in need and never let our heroes be forgotten."

Times researcher Natalie Watson contributed to this report. Mike Brassfield can be reached at brassfield@tampabay.com or (727) 445-4151. Follow him on Twitter @MikeBrassfield.

For families of the fallen, every day is Memorial Day 05/25/14 [Last modified: Sunday, May 25, 2014 11:11pm]
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