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NEWS | Aug. 1, 2023

Illinois National Guard Gold Star Families Enjoy Fire Boat Tour, Each Other

There it was – a glint of silver on the deck of the Fred A. Busse Fireboat. Linda Grieco reached down and picked it up and showed it to her husband, Ralph, with a big smile.

Another dime from Kevin.  

Linda and Ralph’s son, Illinois Army National Guard Staff Sgt. Kevin Grieco, was killed in action on October 27, 2008 when a suicide bomber detonated explosives in Baghlan, Afghanistan. His parents are now filling a jar full of dimes. It could be at the airport, in a conference room, on a sidewalk…the thin silver coin just appears. “It’s always something associated with Kevin,” Ralph Greico said.

Random? A coincidence? Not if you ask the Griecos. “It is a reminder that God will not abandon you,” Ralph said.

On July 29, the dime appeared as the Griecos joined about 20 fellow Gold Star Family members on the historic Chicago fireboat for an architectural tour on Lake Michigan and the Chicago River. The Fireboat Tour was an opportunity for the families of the 34 Illinois National Guard service members killed overseas since the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks to re-connect with each other and the Illinois National Guard. It was organized by the U.S. Army’s Survivor Outreach Services and received support from Gold Star Mission, the USO, Hanson Professional Services, the Veterans of Lake Barrington Shores, Mission BBQ, and Chicago Fireboat Tours. The tour was led by Maj. Gen. Rich Neely, the Adjutant General of Illinois and the Commander of the Illinois National Guard.

“You are part of the Illinois National Guard family,” Neely told the Gold Star Family members. “It is important to the Illinois National Guard to stay connected to its Gold Star Families and to both mourn the loss of our fallen service members and celebrate their lives.”

Survivor Outreach Services helps foster the Gold Star Family community and connect them with resources and organizations that want to help. For example, SoS Coordinator (and fellow Gold Family member) Jean Harris helped connect Ron and Christi Slavenas to fellow Survivors with an online monthly book club she hosts. The Slavenas’ son, 1st Lieutenant Brian Slavenas, was killed in Iraq on November 2, 2003 when the CH-47 Chinook helicopter he was piloting was shot down.

The book talk is “a really good way to get to know people,” said Christi Slavenas, Brian Slavenas’ “bonus” mother. “You have a lot in common with other Gold Star Families and they understand more than others can.”

Sgt. Gerrick Smith, 19, a Soldier with the Illinois Army National Guard’s 2nd Battalion, 130th Infantry Regiment, was in Herat, Afghanistan, preparing to go home on July 29, 2009, when the accidental discharge from a fellow Soldier’s weapon killed him. He was the last Soldier killed overseas during the 33rd Infantry Brigade Combat Team’s historic 2008-2009 deployment to Afghanistan.

His sister, Seeley Smith, was 21 when her brother was killed. She said the anniversary of his death is always hard on her and her family. This year she decided to spend it with fellow Gold Star Family members on the boat tour. She also brought a close family friend and fellow Gold Star Family member. Gay Eisenhauer was her guest on the boat tour. Gay’s son, Army Pfc. Wyatt Eisenhauer, was killed in action on May 19, 2005 in Iraq. He was a member of the U.S. Army’s 3rd Brigade, 1st Armored Division. 

The first fellow Gold Star Family member the Slavenas’ met was Jim Frazier, whose son, Staff Sgt. Jacob Frazier became the first Illinois National Guard member killed overseas after 9/11. Jacob was a Tactical Air Control Party (TACP) Airman with the Illinois Air National Guard’s the 169th Air Support Operations Squadron, 182nd Airlift Wing. He was killed on March 29, 2003, in Southern Afghanistan during an ambush on his Special Operations team. Shortly after Brian Slavenas was killed in action, Jim Frazier showed up at the Slavenas’ door just wanting to help.

“We’re a community,” Christi Slavenas said. “We are a community that prays that we do not get any more members.”

But they welcome involvement from those who are already members. July 29 would have been Sgt. Joshua Harris’ 36th birthday. He was killed in action on Sept. 17, 2008 in Afghanistan while serving with the Illinois Army National Guard’s 2nd Battalion, 122nd Field Artillery, part of the 33rd Infantry Brigade Combat Team’s historic 2008-2009 deployment. The Harris family would typically visit Josh’s gravesite and deliver some cupcakes, but this year they decided to spend his birthday with other Gold Star Family members, said Mille Harris, Joshua’s mother.

His nephew, 19-year-old Tyler Dutra, and niece, 15-year-old Breana, were young when Sgt. Harris was killed. Only four at the time, Tyler said he still has flashes of memory of his fun-loving Godfather and uncle, but Breana was just a baby. Their mother and Joshua’s sister, Kristen Dutra, said the tour seemed like a good way to honor Joshua and meet other Gold Star Family members. Joining them was Joshua’s sister, Valerie Foster, and grandmother, Elaine Forsgren.

Joshua’s “bonus” mother, Jean Harris, organized the excursion as the SoS services support coordinator. Her husband, and Joshua’s father, Bill Harris, was active in the Gold Star community including the naming of the Brookfield (Illinois) Veterans of Foreign Wars Post in his son’s honor in 2015. He died after a long battle with cancer in January 2019.

Many family members of the Illinois National Guard’s fallen service members are active in veteran and military organizations. They have attended many memorial services honoring fallen U.S. service members. The boat tour was an opportunity to do something fun with their fellow Gold Star Families.

Olivia and Alberto Segura, parents of Illinois Army National Guard Spc. Ashley Sietsema, attend Chicago’s Memorial Day breakfast, wreath laying, and parade every year. The boat tour was different. “I feel like my daughter is here in spirit,” Olivia said. “I feel like I’m here with her, not doing something for her.”

Ashley, an Army medic and college nursing student, died in a military motor vehicle accident in Kuwait on November 12, 2007. Her mother, who immigrated to the United States from Mexico before Ashley was born, has become an advocate for immigration rights for those non-citizens who join the U.S. military. Ashley was a citizen, she said, but the man who raised her, Alberto, had to fight for his green card after her daughter’s death.

It's common for Gold Star Family members to have feelings of love and loss drive an empathy and passion for helping others. For years Mille Harris was involved in the Illinois Motorcycle Freedom Run, which funds the maintenance and upkeep of the Middle East Conflicts Wall in Marseilles, Illinois. A couple of worn-out knees have precluded her from riding a motorcycle for a while, but she still finds ways to be involved.

Ralph and Linda Grieco meet with other Gold Star Family members once a month at Panera Bread or, more often now, Mission BBQ. Often those monthly gatherings are just some time to enjoy each other’s company. But, if someone needs some time to cry, that’s OK too, Ralph Grieco said. “We all understand.”

The Griecos are also active with Operation Support Our Troops and its care package drives. They have helped Gold Star Mission with its efforts to honor fallen service members. Gold Star Mission is producing a video on their son. The Griecos are helping to send one of the Gold Star Mission’s bicyclists to Poland to participate in a ride honoring veterans and fallen service members there. Ralph Grieco, a retired U.S. Army colonel, has also served as a tour guide at the 1st Infantry Division Museum at Cantigny in Wheaton, Illinois.

Some of the couple’s volunteer work isn’t directly involved with the military. They also run a grief ministry for anyone who has experienced loss at their church, St. John Baptist Church in Winfield, Illinois. “People feel more comfortable in a group of others who share similar experiences,” Ralph Grieco said.

But, above all their volunteer work, Ralph and Linda enjoy and are grateful for the time they get to spend with their grandchildren - Kevin’s son and daughter, Joshua and Angela. Both are terrific – and very good-looking - young adults now. “They are really good kids, despite all they’ve been through,” Ralph said.

Joshua was only four when Kevin died and his sister was a bit younger, but their grandparents have noticed how much they are like their father. “Especially Josh. He’s so much like Kevin. He talks like him, laughs like him…he even has his mannerisms. How does that happen?” Ralph said.

All the while, the Griecos continue to find small tokens or gifts - bits of silver on the floor, in the grass, on a sidewalk – and, on July 29, on the deck of a boat with other Gold Star Families. Dimes from heaven continue to fill their jar.

Joining the other Gold Star Families on the Chicago Fireboat tour was Tony Vazquez, the father of Illinois Army National Guard Staff Sgt. Jason Vazquez, and Sue and Ray Wieczorek. Sue is the mother of Illinois Army National Guard Sgt. Robert Weinger.

Jason Vazquez, 24, a deputy sheriff in the Cook County Sheriff’s Department, was killed in action on September 17, 2008 in Afghanistan when the vehicle he was in was hit by a roadside bomb. Also killed was fellow Illinois Army National Guard Soldier Sgt. Joshua Harris and two other Soldiers, active Army 1st Lt. Mohsin Naqvi and Wyoming Army National Guard Capt. Bruce Hays.

Robert Weinger, 24, was killed in action on March 15, 2009 in Afghanistan by a roadside bomb. Also killed in the incident were Illinois Army National Guard Soldiers Sgt. Christopher Abeyta and Spc. Normal Cain and active Air Force Staff Sgt. Timothy Bowles.

Also joining the Gold Star Families and Illinois National Guard servicemembers were Gold Star Mission volunteer Connie Robinson, Nick Sauer and Angela Steinkirchner from Veterans of Lake Barrington Shores, and Survivor Outreach Services’ newest services support coordinator, Michelle Rutherford. Co-owners and Captains of Chicago Fireboat Tours, Ray Novak and Erich Totsch, both U.S. Navy veterans, piloted the Fred A. Busse with their crew. Novak and Totsch started their business with help from the Veteran Business Project.