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Church Honors 5,516 Fallen Soldiers

Randy Chritophersen and Mary Ann West worked with volunteers through yesterday's heat to help plant 5,516 flags on the lawn of Saugatuck Congregational Church. Each one of the small Stars and Stripes in the display stood for a soldier who has fallen in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

"There are more than 5,500 individuals that won't be able to continue their lives. They've paid more for this country than we ever have for our freedoms. I mean, it's so moving," said Christophersen.

Christophersen and West are the co-chairs of the church's Field of Flags Committee. For months they have toiled to bring the traveling installation to Westport. After all of the research into the soldiers who died, West said, "I feel like I am getting to know them."

Through the morning and into the late afternoon, volunteers solemnly planted the flags in rows. The names of the 51 fallen Connecticut servicemen lined the driveway into the church. Two names on the list don't appear on the national registry of soldiers killed in the war. Westport's Charles Rochlin died in an automobile accident while on leave and is not counted as a war casualty. Tyler Connely, of Glastonbury, died while serving in Iceland at Naval Air Station Keflavik in another accident during bad weather just before war was declared.

Connely's mother, Kathryn Cross, is the president of the Connecticut chapter of the Gold Star Mother's. The organization bears a high cost to join: They are the mother's of fallen soldiers.

Cross' son was in training as a Navy Seal but an injury had set him back. He was reassigned to perform law enforcement in a K-9 unit at the Iceland base. "Tyler was so excited to be a dog handler and a police officer. I think he lived his dream," said Cross. She said displays like the Field of Flags are necessary to help the nation understand the risks the volunteer armed services take.

During the dedication ceremony another mother, Shalini Madaras of Wilton, talked about the need to remember not just those who have died but all those who serve. "There is one flag for our son, Nicholas," said Madaras, as her voice cracked. "We are saddened that he is one of the fallen," she said, "but we must remember to honor those do come home too." Madaras is involved with Homes for the Brave, which seeks to create transitional housing for returning soldiers, especially women for whom fewer such services are available than for their male counterparts.

Before the dedication ceremony, Assistant Fire Chief Larry Conklin recited aloud the list of Connecticut's fallen soldiers while the church bells rang after each name. Afterward he said standing there and reading the names gave him goosebumps. "You feel for the servicemen who gave their lives and you feel for the families who have to endure with their loss for the rest of their lives," said Conklin.

After the dedication ceremony, an interfaith service was held inside the church. Christophersen said both the service and the tolling of bells during the reading of names are unusual for the display.

The Field of Flags began in Somers, Conn., and has appeared throughout the state. The Westport display will remain on the Saugatuck Congregational Church lawn until July 4.

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