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Families use toy soldiers to honor real military heroes at Memorial Day event

Veterans and families honor lives lost at Veterans Freedom Park on Memorial Day

The Town of Cary Memorial Day Remembrance ceremony was held at Veterans Freedom Park on Monday. Families who have lost service members listened to speeches and visited the memorial, where toy soldiers honoring individuals sat amongst American flags.
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The Town of Cary Memorial Day Remembrance ceremony was held at Veterans Freedom Park on Monday. Families who have lost service members listened to speeches and visited the memorial, where toy soldiers honoring individuals sat amongst American flags.

Elizabeth Tiller of Pittsboro and her 4-year-old daughter, Katherine, spent a long while Monday at the base of the monument in Cary’s Veterans Freedom Park, looking through a collection of toy soldiers that lay on the stones.

For several years, the Town of Cary has given out the tiny plastic figurines at the ceremonies for Memorial Day and Veterans Day. Each soldier has a paper tag tied by a string; people are encouraged to add the name of any loved one who served and place the soldiers on the monument in the area dedicated to the appropriate military branch.

At the end of the day, the toy soldiers are gathered up and stored, to be brought back at the next event. About 200 of them now bear the names of people who have served.

Tiller and her daughter were turning the tags, looking for the names of three Army men they added to the collection a couple of years ago: Tiller’s husband, a friend of his, and his grandfather.

“When we find them, we’ll take a picture of the three of them together,” Tiller said.

Monday’s ceremony was an opportunity for other veterans to get together, too. Under the tent, the Cary Town Band played patriotic music, including a medley of the official song of each branch of service. When they heard their tune, veterans of each branch stood up and were applauded by the crowd.

Tiller said her daughter is too young to understand all the significance of a Memorial Day event — honoring those who died in war so that others could live in peace — but she talks to her about it.

“I think it’s important to pass on to her about all the men and women who have fought for our freedoms,” Tiller said. “I want her to know it’s not just a day out of school.”

‘I share the story’

Nancy Francis doesn’t wait for the last Monday in May to honor her fallen Marine, her grandson, Cpl. David Michael Sonka.

Francis wears a silver dog tag with his likeness on it draped around her neck everywhere she goes. Given the smallest opening, she reaches into her pocketbook and pulls out the frayed paper envelope that holds her photos of him and of his mother, her daughter.

“I share the story,” she says, “with everybody I get a chance to.”

Sonka grew up in Colorado, Francis said, always concerned about other people. When 9/11 happened, “He decided right then he would join the Marines.”

Sonka was only 11 at the time of the terrorist attacks, so he had to wait a few years. He joined the Marine Corps when he was 18, eventually becoming a dog handler in the Special Operations Command at Camp Lejeune.

He was 23 years old and deployed to Afghanistan’s Farah province when he and another Marine were shot and killed on May 4, 2013, according to the Department of Defense. A report in the Military Times said at the time both men died when an Afghan soldier turned his weapon on them. Sonka’s Belgian malinois, Flex, also died in the attack, Francis said, and was buried with him at Fort Logan National Cemetery in Denver.

Francis was grateful, she said, that at a time when fewer and fewer people have a direct connection to a service member, nearly 200 people were willing to stand under a tent at Cary’s Veterans Freedom Park in 90-degree heat to honor Sonka and others who have died during military service to the United States.

“We need to remember the sacrifices that the fallen have made for this country,” Francis said. “People want to throw that away every day. I don’t understand it.”

Martha Quillin is a general assignment reporter at The News & Observer who writes about North Carolina culture, religion and social issues. She has held jobs throughout the newsroom since 1987.
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