PEORIA — Last fall, Kim Smith heard about a new initiative from America's Gold Star Families, a charity dedicated to helping Gold Star families cope with the loss of their loved ones. The organization would be selling "Hometown Heroes" banners to memorialize fallen soldiers. The banners would hang from lampposts on Orange Prairie Road.
Her husband, Staff Sgt. Paul Smith of East Peoria, died in the summer of 2009 in Afghanistan while serving with the Illinois Army National Guard. Upon finding out about the program, Kim Smith thought the banner would be perfect in her ongoing effort to preserve the memory of her husband, and the sacrifice he gave for his country.
"I told my children it was all I wanted for Christmas," Smith said.
Gold Star families were at the forefront of the Memorial Day service Monday morning at the Gateway Building, a sweltering affair that still managed to attract a few hundred people to the Peoria riverfront. Smith spoke in front of that assembled crowd as a Gold Star family member, but she was not alone at the podium.
As it turned out, her children didn't have to purchase the banner for Christmas last winter — At Large Peoria City Councilman Sid Ruckriegel bought it for them. Ruckriegel said he has been involved with helping Gold Star families for the past three years and decided to sponsor a banner after hearing about the new program.
"It's important that not only one day out of the year, but for each and every day out of the year, that we remember those who have really paid the ultimate sacrifice," Ruckriegel said. "And this was a way to be able to do that."
Patti Smith, the president of America's Gold Star Families and the featured guest speaker at the service Monday, chose to highlight the banner program during her speech as a way to honor those families and to show a tangible way the community can support them. Even though 57 banners now hang on Orange Prairie Road, she said that their presence — and what they stand for — isn't yet known to the greater Peoria area.
"There's a lot of people who still don't know about it," Patti Smith said.
The rest of Monday's service at the Gateway Building yielded equal parts solemnity and celebration, from the recognition and applause for the veterans in attendance to the hushed quiet as memorial wreaths were placed together in remembrance of each of the country's wars and conflicts. The Peoria Municipal Band provided the music for the ceremony while longtime Peoria At-Large City Councilman and Vietnam War veteran Eric Turner served as master of ceremonies.
As the service unfolded in near 100-degree heat, Nora Leman of West Peoria sat in the front row and participated throughout with enthusiasm. The spry 94-year-old served as an Army nurse in 1945 and 1946 in the Philippines, which was where she met her husband, Ivan, as they worked together in the same ward.
Her husband passed away 22 years ago, but Leman still routinely attends veterans events in the area year-round. Even though her military service concluded more than seven decades ago, Memorial Day marks an annual day of reflection for a reality that she witnessed firsthand while working in medical wards during war.
"You think about the people who didn't come home," Leman said.
Thomas Bruch can be reached at 686-3262 or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @ThomasBruch.