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Families to honor fallen military during Operation Love Letters

By Howard Altman | Tampa Tribune, Fla. | Published: February 13, 2016

TAMPA, Fla. (Tribune News Service) — For Yolanda Mercado, the pain of losing her son while he was deployed in Afghanistan more than four years ago is still raw.

That’s why she is looking forward to Operation Love Letters, a commemoration of Americans who died while in service to the country that is being held for the first time in Tampa on Saturday.

“It is important to me because it is to honor our loved ones,” said Mercado, whose son, Army Pvt. Jalfred D. Vaquerano, was 20 when he died from his wounds in December 2011 after being shot in Logar province. “It’s a day to remember the good times we had with them and share it with others.”

Operation Love Letters was created to bring Gold Star families together to remember their loved ones, said Mercado. The families bring their loved ones’ favorite dessert to share with their memories,, she said. They also write letters to them, do crafts as mementos and release balloons “with the hope that it reaches their loved ones,” she said.

The event will be held at the Tampa Veterans Memorial Park and Museum as a collaboration between the Army Reserve Survivor Outreach Services (part of Army Reserve Family Programs), the Army Reserve Medical Command, as well as survivor family members, said Marshall F. Pesta, an Army Reserve spokeswoman.

Operation Love Letters began in Orlando four years ago as a collaboration among the Orlando Survivor Outreach Services team and surviving family members in the Orlando and Tampa area, said Barbara Giddens, U.S. Army Reserve SOS program manager. The event has expanded from one location to 16 Army Reserve Survivor Outreach Services sponsored event locations throughout the country.

From World War II on, more than 1,700 troops from Charlotte, Citrus, Hernando, Highlands, Hillsborough, Manatee, Pasco, Pinellas, Polk and Sarasota counties have been killed, including about 90 since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Others have died in training accidents, from illness and by suicide.

“The event provides an atmosphere to create new relationships with other surviving families,” Giddens said. “It is a chance to gain spiritual insight and resilience, and to interact with the Army Reserve community.”

Mercado said that she expects two or three dozen survivor family members to show up.

The public, she added, is welcome to take part, as well, to honor the fallen.

“This is a day to have smiles in the midst of the tears,” she said. “A day to celebrate their lives and their love for our country and us.”

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©2016 the Tampa Tribune (Tampa, Fla.)
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