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Remembering an American hero: Snoqualmie Valley residents gather to honor fallen Marine Eric Ward
Hundreds of flags waved in the cold morning air on Saturday, March 13, as Snoqualmie Valley residents joined visitors from across the state in honoring the memory of Marine Lance Cpl. Eric Levi Ward.
Flags grew thick along the procession route on Meadowbrook Way and Highway 202 in Snoqualmie, as family and friends arrived at Mount Si High School to remember Ward, a 2008 graduate of Mount Si who was killed in action Sunday, Feb. 21 in Afghanistan's Helmand province.
"I'm just a citizen who loves my soldiers," said Girl Scout Troop leader and American Legion member Suzy Cassidy of North Bend. Cassidy got permission for 70 flagbearers to greet the Ward procession, which included Washington's "First Gentleman," Mike Gregoire, on Saturday morning.
But the turnout far exceeded what she expected.
"There are people that didn't even contact me who showed up," Cassidy said. "It's just awesome to see this kind of support from the community."
Hundreds more filled the Mount Si High School gym, where teachers, friends and family of Ward recalled his energy and spirit.
Emcee Chris Blake, who taught and coached Eric at Chief Kanim Middle School, recalled how his pupil's smile could be contagious.
Smart and funny, Ward could sometimes be mischievous.
"He'd flash that smile and you couldn't stay mad at him," Blake said. "That smile speaks to who he was in life. He was a leader in the classroom. He was tough, a good athlete, the kind of kid who would do anything for his teammates."
Andrew Ward said his older brother touched lives, clearly evident by the crowd around him.
"He could be a pain in the butt, but he was one of the coolest brothers," said Andrew, who described his brother as carrying an inner strength.
"If that kid, that 19 year old, can bring this many people together in this room, take that strength, and continue to carry it on," he said.
"It's really easy to share great stories about his life," said brother Gregory Ward. "Eric lived a life so full and rich. He packed experiences into his short 19 years that some of us can only dream of having. Eric was free, freer than most of us can claim. He knew how to be a man."
"All of our customers — teachers, parents and students — were treated equal by Eric," said Jeanette Durham, a Mount Si clerical employee who worked alongside Ward.
Long before he became a Marine, Ward was a trustworthy, promising young man, working in Durham's office.
When Durham brought her 10-year-old daughter to work, Ward and friend Jake Handy would take her with them on errands.
"On their way back, they'd say, 'Let's race,'" Durham said. "They always let her win.
"Eric made a difference in my life, and I want to thank his family for sharing him with me," she added.
Reading a letter written to his departed son, Ward's father, Steven, described his tears as "messengers of overwhelming grief and unspeakable love."
"You taught me that it's really not the dates when we come and go that matter," he said. "Just what we do in that space in between. You did a lot in yours."
During the ceremony, Marines placed a rifle, combat helmet and a pair of empty boots on a stand at the head of the gymnasium. Silence filled the room as Ward's name was called, unanswered, during a role call. A file of Marines crisply folded an American flag, and shots echoed outside as an honor guard fired into the air. Family members silently filed out of the room at the conclusion.
"It was everything I could do to keep my tears back," said Virgil Wilbur, a Kent-based member of the Patriot Guard Riders, one of several motorcycle clubs that attended. "He's an American hero. This gentleman looked like he could have been a model, could have seriously gone places. For a young man like that to make a decision on fighting for his country, that's honorable beyond what I can explain."
Snoqualmie resident Joe Richter brought his son Luke, a Snoqualmie Elementary kindergartener, to the memorial. He hopes the community learns from Ward's example.
"We are in the middle of war," Richter said. "America is providing a tremendous amount of human support, soldier support as well as material support for another country. Remember the effort and the sacrifice that’s being given.
Retired Marine major Fred Lawrence, a Snoqualmie resident, hoisted a Marine Corps banner with the help of his wife Carol.
"I'm overwhelmed by the support," Lawrence said. "Parents are showing their children that, yes, that there is a future for them, because of sacrifices. Maybe someday, they are also going to have to step up and put themselves on the line like this young man did.”
"I've got a son in law who’s active in the Air Force right now," said Snoqualmie resident June Garvin. "I know that the loss of a family member is a pretty difficult thing to have to bear. We just want to be here to help support the family.”
Several members of the high school athletic teams were among those attending and waving flags.
Mount Si teacher and assistant softball coach Brian Tawney said he hopes young people learned a lot by participating.
"Unfortunate that this is, the reason people like Eric do what they do is so people like us have the freedom to do what we do,” he said.
See it yourself
Mount Si High School Career and Technical Education Teacher Joe Dockery, with help from consultant Bill Blakely, set up a live Webcast of the memorial from the school gym straight to Afghanistan. The program can be viewed at the Mount Si Web site, www.mountsihighschool.com.