Every day he’s on the job, Atlantic City police Officer Jefferson Rivera wears dog tags bearing his brother’s name: Army Spc. Eric G. Palacios Rivera.
Eric, his only sibling, was 21 when he was killed in a firefight in Ramadi, Iraq, in November 2006.
“He got killed the day he was supposed to leave for a visit home,” Jefferson said. “One of his buddies said the guys were under fire, and (Eric) was the platoon leader. They needed someone to go out front (to provide cover). Even though he was leaving in a few hours, he went.”
The rest of the platoon got to safety, said Jefferson, 33, of Egg Harbor Township.
“I know he loved the military,” Jefferson said of his brother, who was on his second tour in Iraq. “He’d do it all over again.”
The brothers grew up together in Atlantic City. Jefferson said he feels the pressure of being his mom’s only surviving child.
“Especially with my job, you never know,” Jefferson said. “I was working vice for five years, and it was all guns and drugs. It made me more careful. I don’t want my mom receiving another folded-up flag.”
Their mother, Cayetana Palacios, of Atlantic City, has worked at Caesars Atlantic City for 30 years in environmental services. She said time has helped her.
“I still have pain and suffering, but time has healed it a little bit,” she said through a translator and friend, Ida Martinez, of Atlantic City. “Having the support from family and friends is important.”
Feroze and Nisha Khan, of Manahawkin in Stafford Township, will spend Memorial Day visiting the grave of their son, Army Cpl. Kareem Khan, at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia. On Friday they were guests of honor at a Memorial Day service at Southern Regional High School, from which Kareem graduated in 2005.
Kareem, who is Nisha’s stepson, was killed Aug. 6, 2007, in an explosion while searching a home in Baqubah, Iraq.
“He always wanted to be a soldier, since he was 5,” Feroze said. As a Muslim born in the U.S., he also wanted to show that Muslims are good U.S. citizens.
“He was an American citizen born in America, who happened to be Muslim,” his dad said.
The family has been attending the Southern Regional ceremony since it started three years ago. Teacher Marilyn Dougherty works with a student planning committee to arrange speakers, and student musicians and singers perform. Singer and guitarist Nicholas Bernard had many audience members in tears with his rendition of “Arlington,” a song about a soldier killed in battle, joining his grandfather in the cemetery.
The Khans also have a daughter, Aliya, who is a junior at Southern.
“Saturday she had her junior prom, and she really missed him. They were very close, even with a big age difference. He was always there for her,” Nisha said.
“Memorial Day should be remembered for what it is. It’s not about partying or going to the beach. It’s about this,” Feroze said, gesturing to the 6,713 American flags Southern students planted in the lawn in front of the school. There is one flag for each service member killed in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq since September 11, 2001.
Operation Iraqi Freedom ended in 2010 and was replaced by Operation New Dawn, which ended U.S. combat operations in Iraq on Dec. 31, 2011.
But the nation is still embroiled in combat operations in Afghanistan, in Operation Enduring Freedom.
According to the U.S. Department of Defense, as of Friday, the total number of service members who died in Operation Iraqi Freedom was 4,422, with 3,489 killed in action and 933 in non-hostile conditions. A total of 31,927 service members were wounded in action.
The number of deaths in Operation New Dawn was 66, with 38 killed in action and 28 in noncombat conditions; 295 were wounded in action.
Also as of Friday, the total number of deaths in Operation Enduring Freedom was 2,220, of which 1,746 were killed in action and 470 in nonhostile conditions. Four cases are pending investigation. There have been 18,584 service members wounded in action in Afghanistan.
Susan Walkup, of Millville, lost her brother and only sibling, Air Force Staff Sgt. Thomas A. Walkup Jr., in November 2003. The 25-year-old flight engineer on a special operations helicopter died in a crash caused by mechanical failure in Afghanistan.
“There’s always something that will trigger you. Some days you wake up after dreaming about him,” she said. “You just learn to deal with it differently.”
She and her brother were born 13 months apart; she is the elder. Now, her 6-year-old son has her brother’s name. He had no children of his own.
She also has a daughter, who was 3 when Tom Jr. died.
“My kids don’t have aunts and uncles,” she said. “People forget siblings.”
Susan has raised more than $200,000 in memory of her brother through the Tom Walkup Jr. Memorial Poker Run, a motorcycle event in its 10th and final year this August.
“It is time to move on from it,” she said. One of her goals, to help create Patriot Park in Millville, has been achieved with the help of Fathers for Patriot Park, a group started by her father, Tom Walkup Sr.
The Poker Run has also funded two $250 scholarships for Millville High School graduates each year for at least the next 20 years, she said.
Susan Walkup spends Memorial Day at the Millville parade.
“We set up seats in Patriot Park. My mother and her friends are there, by my brother’s cherry tree at the park,” she said of her mom, Patricia. “There’s one for him and one for Harry Swain.”
Marine Lance Cpl. Harry R. Swain IV, of Millville, was killed in January 2005 in Babil Province, Iraq. He died less than two weeks before his unit was due to rotate home. The 21-year-old was laid to rest at Greenwood Memorial Park in Millville.
Susan’s brother is buried in Arlington National Cemetery, and she and her father visit the grave every year on her brother’s birthday and the date he died, and at least two other times a year.
Tom Walkup Sr., a retired former Millville superintendent of streets and roads, moved to Florida in 2010. He had always planned to retire to Myrtle Beach, S.C., he said, but instead chose to be close to the Pensacola base where Tom Jr. was last stationed.
“I’m still friendly with people he flew with. One of the guys lives across the street from me,” Tom Walkup Sr. said.
He said talking to people his son flew with helped him get through his grief more than anything else.
“There is nothing about my son’s death that I don’t know firsthand,” he said.
Tom Jr. was a member of an elite squad that inserted special operations forces, such as Navy SEALs and Army Rangers, into areas of Afghanistan, then extracted them after their job was done, Tom Sr. said.
The special operations helicopter on which Tom Jr. was a flight engineer lost an engine and crashed in the thin air of the 11,000-foot mountains in Afghanistan. It was designed to function on one engine, but conditions were apparently too severe.
“As hard as his death was for me to deal with, one thing kept coming back — that was knowing how happy he was in what he was doing, and how much he loved what he was doing,” Tom Sr. said.
Cayetana Palacio smiles when she remembers the little things about her son, Eric. He cooked for her and played practical jokes when he was home, and tried to protect her from worry. He didn’t tell her he was back in Iraq, instead making sure she thought he was stationed in Germany, she said.
The family goes to church around Memorial Day at Our Lady Star of the Sea in Atlantic City. They visit his grave at the Atlantic County Veterans Cemetery in Estell Manor. Then they go to lunch and talk about him.
“We try not to keep it sad. I have two daughters. The older one, Emily, is 12, and she still remembers him. She misses him a lot.”
Jefferson said military work runs in his family, which was originally from El Salvador in Central America.
Jefferson was born in California, and Eric in Atlantic City. Both felt the pull of the military, but Jefferson decided not to join because he had his first daughter at age 20 and didn’t want to leave her.
Now he and wife Liz have three children: Emily, Erika, 5, and Jefferson Giovanny, 1.
But Eric joined.
“He loved his brothers in arms,” Jefferson said.
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