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Chicago honors fallen soldiers and their families at downtown Memorial Day parade, wreath-laying ceremony

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Despite the often celebratory nature of Memorial Day, Rear Admiral Zeita Merchant reminded the hundreds gathered outside the Daley Center downtown that it’s a solemn day of observance for families and friends of armed service members who lost their lives defending the country. 

“Our Gold Star families .. reflect on the face and the voice that they ache to see and hear once more,” she said. “The one day we tell the stories of men and women who made the ultimate sacrifice.” 

Merchant spoke Saturday morning at Chicago’s wreath-laying ceremony. The city hosted the ceremony followed by a parade in the Loop to honor fallen soldiers and their families for Memorial Day, which is observed Monday. Gold Star families are those whose family member died while in active-duty military service.  

Merchant, who was born in Chicago and also served as the parade’s grand marshal, made history last month as the first African American woman to attain the rank of admiral in the U.S. Coast Guard. Merchant said remembering and repeating the stories of soldiers is an “acknowledgement and appreciation for their bravery.” 

“Stories have immense power. They bring back our loved ones to light, if only briefly,” she said. “Remembering stories is like dreaming, where those who have passed .. come back to live and revisit us.”

For Jean Harris, the stepmother of Sgt. Joshua Harris, who was killed in action in 2008 in Afghanistan while serving with the Illinois Army National Guard, the holiday allows everyone to share in the remembrance of loved ones who died, something families’ experience daily. 

“That empty chair, pictures that never get updated as if they’re frozen in time,” said Harris, a survivor outreach services coordinator. “Forever a memory that seems like yesterday.”

“These memories are replaced with a golden flag, medals and awards achieved to validate a dedicated service and now forever honor their loved one’s sacrifice,” she continued. “Each one of these items is a cherished item that would be gladly turned in, if it could bring them back.”

Mayor Brandon Johnson referenced the recently-restored Vietnam Veterans Memorial on Chicago’s Riverwalk, which contains the names of nearly 3,000 Illinois service members killed in Vietnam, as a way to “continually remember our brave neighbors and friends.”  

“From the beaches of Normandy to the jungles of Vietnam to the deserts of Iraq, our sons and daughters of Chicago — they were there,” Johnson said. “They came from different corners of our city and every walk of life. But they were united by a common love for their country, their love for our communities, and they had a shared commitment to defend them.”

The ceremony also included renditions of patriotic songs, such as “The Star-Spangled Banner” and “God Bless America,” as well as a 21-gun salute. 

The parade, which started at noon, went south on State Street from Lake Street to Van Buren Street. Dozens along the route — many wearing red, white and blue — cheered and waved as floats, bands and firetrucks passed. 

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