Bloomington-Normal is commemorating fallen soldiers and their families in a new way this holiday season.
America’s Gold Star Families (AGSF) and the Sgt. Anthony Maddox Memorial came together to bring the Fallen Heroes Tree of Honor to Central Illinois Regional Airport in Bloomington. The tree, which was formally dedicated Tuesday, features 155 hand-crafted ornaments representing fallen soldiers from 33 states.
ASGF President Patti Smith said the Tree of Honor is as much about the fallen soldiers as it is their grieving families.
“We do this to honor our fallen, to hopefully bring some small comfort to their survivors, especially during the holiday season,” Smith said. “I think it also serves as a good reminder to all of us that freedom isn’t free. It’s paid for with a very high price, and it does us all good to be reminded of that and maybe take action as a result, give back somewhere, somehow.”
The dedication of the tree took place Tuesday, with state Rep. Dan Brady as the master of ceremonies and state Sen. Jason Barickman as the guest speaker. The tree is now standing in the Central Illinois Regional Airport, but Smith hopes people will see more than just the tree’s beauty.
“Every ornament represents a life lost for our freedom, and while it is a beautiful tree, its significance is profound,” Smith said. “It’s in a high visibility pedestrian way, so during the holidays, there’ll be a lot of travelers, and we hope they’ll take the time to reflect and remember.”
Army Ranger Sgt. Joshua P. Rodgers, a Bloomington native and soldier who was killed in action in April, is among the names on the Tree of Honor. Vonda Rodgers, his Gold Star Mother, said the tree is a way to keep their names alive.
“This isn’t a tree to be viewed solemnly. There should be a lot of noise around this tree, because the idea is to read the names of each of the fallen heroes on that tree,” Rodgers said. “In the Army, they have the belief that people die twice, once on the battlefield and once when people stop saying your name.”
She added that it’s the community’s support that has helped her continue to tell her son’s story and speak his name.
“For the community to say, ‘We hear you, and we believe you, and to support you, we’re going to put this tree up, and we will come and we will read the names, and we will better understand the price of freedom,’ I think (that’s) what gives me the strength to explain to people what a Gold Star Family is,” she said.
Bloomington’s Tree of Honor was inspired by a similar tree that was put up in Springfield last year. Both trees are now up this year.
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