HONOLULU – Nearly 2,000 people gathered Monday at Hawaii's Capitol for an emotional service to honor 28 Hawaii-based servicemen killed in Iraq, all but one in a single helicopter crash.
"It's one of the most beautiful ceremonies I have ever seen," said Roni Aurelio, among family members who came from about a dozen states to the open air rotunda, where purple-and-white orchid leis framed photographs of the Marines (search).
"I think he would be very honored," she said of her son, Cpl. Stephen P. Johnson, 24, of Covina, Calif.
"He was my best friend, my son, my comrade," said Aurelio, clutching her son's dogtags.
The photographs rested in front of the Marines' boots, M-16 rifles and tan helmets. The service included songs, prayers and a 21-gun salute. It concluded with the playing of "Taps," as family members wept into their hands.
Twenty-six Marines from the base at Kaneohe Bay (search) and a Pearl Harbor (search) sailor were among the 31 killed when their helicopter went down in western Iraq in late January. It was the single deadliest event for the American military in Iraq since the U.S. invasion in March 2003.
The 28th honoree Monday was Marine Lance Cpl. Sean P. Maher, 19, of Grayslake, Ill., who was killed in Iraq combat in February.
Richard Gilbert Sr. flew from Florida to attend the ceremony for his youngest son, Marine Cpl. Richard A. Gilbert Jr., 26, of Dayton, Ohio.
"I don't think the pain will ever go away," he said. "My son's a national hero."
Ten of the 28 were fathers. Three never met newborn children.
"They'll never know their fathers in human form, but I know you will keep their memories alive," Gov. Linda Lingle said. "I hope when you talk to the children, you will tell them about today, that the people of Hawaii came out to honor their fathers."
Hundreds of Marines from the Hawaiian base and sailors from Pearl Harbor attended the service, creating an ocean of white and khaki.
Sgt. Catcher Cutstherope, 32, of Hays, Mont., knew most of the helicopter crash victims.
"You've had dinner with them at their houses, you trained with them, you sweat and bled with them," he said. "They're home now."
Cutstherope was wounded by a suicide bomber carrying grenades in Fallujah on Nov. 22. He now walks with a cane and has limited movement of his arms and legs.