As 18-month-old Ethan Jared Brandl leaned in and kissed the photo of his uncle displayed on the Illinois Patriot Guard Fallen Heroes Traveling Memorial Wall Saturday, he let out a sweet "Love you, Uncle Jared."
More than 200 family members and friends, including Mayor James Sexton, in , a place where Stanker spent countless hours playing as a child. Next to the Evergreen Park street sign sits a boulder dedicated to Stanker last year with the inscription, “We love you and you will never be forgotten.”
Stanker was killed in Afghanistan on Oct. 27, 2009, with six other U.S. soldiers in a roadside bomb attack.
Jordan Brandl, Stanker’s older sister, said she remembers getting the news like it was yesterday. “We heard earlier in the morning that a few American soldiers had been killed. ... We found out late that evening that Jared was one of them,” Brandl said.
Stanker had always dreamed of being a soldier. “He did what he always wanted to do and joined the Army. He went and did what only a certain amount of brave men and women do,” said Brandl.
Mary Beth Ramos, Stanker’s aunt, recalled his enthusiasm about joining the armed forces as a young boy. “He acquired this love for the military at a young age,” she said. “He would watch old war movies with my dad,” Stanker’s grandfather, a Marine who fought in the Korean War.
“He and my son would play Beanie Babies and G.I. Joes in the back yard,” said Kathy Kenny, a family friend who knew Stanker from birth.
Once Stanker made the decision to join the Army shortly after graduating from in 2006, “there was no talking him out of it,” said Susan Stanker, his mother.
Like many soldiers, Stanker wanted to eventually come home, said Abigail Oman, his girlfriend. “He wanted to come home and win peace with as many brothers as he possibly could,” she said. The two had known each other since third grade. “He was my first true love,” she said.
Stanker’s photo is now displayed on the Illinois Patriot Guard Fallen Heroes Traveling Memorial Wall with over 240 other Illinoisans killed in war. After the street sign dedication, the wall was on display at the for the rest of the day. Several visitors came and paid their respects to the fallen troops. According to Don Pannier, a volunteer with the Illinois Patriot Guard Fallen Heroes Traveling Memorial Wall, Stanker is the only Evergreen Park resident pictured on the wall.
Pannier and his wife Robyn, residents of central Illinois, were motivated to volunteer with the Illinois Patriot Guard two years after they lost their son Army Spc. Phillip J. Pannier in Iraq. He and his wife drive the traveling memorial wall around the state to ensure that the fallen soldiers will never be forgotten.
“This is somewhat uplifting to the parents,” said Pannier. “I know what they’re going through. They lost their son a year after I did. We hope it ends soon.”
Keeping Jared’s Spirit Alive
Along with the street dedication and boulder, Stanker's friends and family are creating a book of memories. After the dedication, they gathered at the Stanker family home to celebrate Stanker’s birthday. He would have been 24 years old on Oct. 13. The family has vowed to honor Stanker by celebrating his birthday every year the way that he would have, full of fun, energy and laughter.
“It’s much different this year,” said Kenny. She said last year, the sting of loss was much more fresh, “but now it’s more of a celebration of life.” Brandl organized a sky lantern send-off, to commemorate Stanker's life. The lanterns had traditionally been used in wars, however many now use them as a form of celebration at parties and to memorialize friends and family who have passed on. As soon as the lanterns hit the air, the crowd screamed “Happy Birthday, Jared!”
“He had the most amazing smile and the most expressive eyebrows that I had ever seen in my life. Even when he didn’t smile, he looked like he was smiling because of his face,” said Ramos.
“There was a Jared outside of the military that we all remember,” the fallen soldier's sister said. “Friends with everyone, always there for everyone, always smiling, never had a bad day.”