Published March 26. 2011 4:00AM Updated March 26. 2011 4:23AM
Paul Patchem tries not to think about how life would be different if his stepson were alive.
Wednesday was the eighth anniversary of the day U.S. Marine Cpl. Kemaphoom "Ahn" Chanawongse, 22, of Waterford, was killed in Iraq. The eighth anniversary of the conflict's start was four days prior.
Patchem can't help but wonder where Ahn's career in the Marine Corps could have led.
Would he be a husband today? A father?
"I try not to dwell on that sadness, but it seems to always come up," Patchem said Wednesday.
Dealing with this heartache doesn't really get easier. You don't move on. You just get stronger and learn to live with it, say families from across the state who lost loved ones to the war in Iraq.
The people who understand, they say, are the others who also lost sons or daughters or husbands or wives in the war. Many of these families have met each other through the Connecticut Fallen Heroes Foundation, a group that organizes an annual tribute for soldiers killed in the line of duty.
At first the families go to the tribute because their relative is being honored. They return each year to pay their respects. In the process, they find friends to lean on.
"You have this instant love for these strangers because of what they've endured," said Leesa Philippon, mother of Marine Lance Cpl. Lawrence "Larry" R. Philippon, 22, who was killed in 2005 in Iraq. "But you wish with all of your heart that you didn't have to know them."
A longtime employee of Sikorsky Aircraft Corp., Michael Mastroni, started the foundation after he saw how devastated his daughter was when a classmate, Private Second Class Cheyenne M. Seymour, was killed in a car accident in Tennessee.
Seymour was driving back to her base after picking up her wedding gown. She planned to get married before leaving for Iraq. Mastroni and other Sikorsky employees honored the young soldier at a softball game in 2005.
As the casualty toll in both Iraq and Afghanistan grew, they agreed to plan an annual event to remember the sacrifices of these service members. It has grown in size and scope ever since.
Mastroni frequently emails the families, keeping the network strong. He sends cards on the anniversaries of the soldiers' deaths. He says he feels guilty for never joining the military himself. This is his way of serving.
"He just walks with you in your grief," Leesa Philippon said. "He gets it."
Ahn Chanawongse and six others will be honored at the eighth memorial tribute Sept. 24 at Indian Ledge Park in Trumbull. Patchem hopes the event will remind people that wars should be avoided and lives should not be taken for granted.
"I'm not condemning the war. I'm just saying we should avoid them when possible so things like this don't have to happen," he said.
Wednesday, Patchem took the day off from work. He called his wife, Tan, who is caring for her father in Thailand, and placed flowers at Ahn's white lilac tree and plaque at the town green. He spent the rest of the day at home, alone with his thoughts.
"That eight years doesn't seem like eight years to me," he said. "It's a relative eight years when you miss him so deeply."
Army Capt. Jason Hamill, a Salem native, was honored at the foundation's fifth tribute in 2008. The foundation presented Hamill's parents, Richard and Sharon, with a portrait of their son. It now hangs next to their fireplace.
The Hamills go to events across the state that honor soldiers and veterans to show their support. They also want people to remember Jason. The reason why, Richard Hamill said, is obvious.
"He's my son," he said, pausing for a minute. "I'm trying to come up with a good answer. I'd really rather he wasn't dead."
"I'd rather he was around making me laugh," Sharon Hamill said.
Sharon Hamill's purse is made out of her son's Army shirt. It's the second of its kind; she wore the first one out. She wears a bracelet bearing his name and dates of his birth and death.
The American flag from Jason's funeral is on a table near the front door along with his photo, mementos and a binder holding letters people wrote after the 31-year-old captain was killed by a roadside bomb in Baghdad in 2006. A dresser in the basement is overflowing with notes and gifts that people have sent.
"You don't want to throw any of it away," Richard Hamill said.
"We don't have to," Sharon Hamill quickly replied.
Ray and Leesa Philippon's West Hartford home is similarly decorated with reminders of their son, Larry, who was killed in 2005 by small-arms fire in western Iraq.
"It's what we have to hang on to," Leesa Philippon said.
May 8 will mark the sixth anniversary of Larry's death. It is also Mother's Day and the Philippons' 30th wedding anniversary. Leesa Philippon said she is determined to be strong, since Larry certainly was.
"If he can do what he did," she said, "I will be standing on that day."
Leesa Philippon says she feels a common bond with the other families. They understand even when no words are spoken. Whenever they see each other, Philippon said, they hug twice. The first hug is for them.
The second is for the fallen hero they've lost.