It has become a somber annual event in Columbia, but one that state lawmakers say they are honored to continue.
The Fallen Soldiers luncheon began in 2007 as then-State Sen. Jake Knotts sought to recognize those South Carolinians who had died while serving in the military overseas. Knotts also said at the time that he wanted to show surviving families the gratitude that South Carolina has for their sacrifice.
Perhaps it’s a testament to the event’s emotional message that the woman who defeated Knotts in 2012 has continued his task of organizing the luncheons. “Our State laid to rest two American heroes, who died in service to our Country,” State Sen. Katrina Shealy, R-Lexington, said. “It is important that we never forget their ultimate sacrifice and always honor their families.”
The number of families involved each year has decreased as scaled-down U.S. involvement in the War on Terror is leading to fewer casualties. While 15 soldiers were memorialized as recently as 2011, only two were recognized for giving the ultimate sacrifice this past year.
But that lower number is hollow consolation for the surviving relatives of Army Capt. James “Ed” Chaffin and Specialist Ember Alt.
The Defense Department says Alt, a 21-year-old from Beech Island, died from indirect fire during an insurgent attack near the Bagram Air Force Base last June. She served with the 4th Infantry Division.
Alt’s mother Jennifer Owens made the long trek from Texas to be at Wednesday’s lunch. “(Ember) didn’t see herself the way the rest of us saw her,” Owens said after the ceremony “She was amazing… She was a good kid.”
“Each time her name is spoken, she will never be forgotten. So constantly talking about her and other people remembering her, it means a lot.”
Chaffin, a 27-year-old airborne officer from West Columbia, died in what the Pentagon called a “non-combat related accident” only a month ago. The Defense Department said his death occurred in Kandahar, Afghanistan. Chaffin was serving with the 82nd Airborne Division at the time.
Both Owens and Captain Chaffin’s mother Beth received certificates from the General Assembly, the South Carolina Palmetto State Hero Commendation, and a South Carolina state flag that had been flown over the state capitol in honor of their daughter and son.
Also recognized Wednesday was Lance Cpl. William “Kyle” Carpenter, a 24-year-old Marine from Gilbert who is scheduled to receive the Congressional Medal of Honor next month. Carpenter nearly died from his injuries after using his body to block a grenade blast while he and another Marine guarded a rooftop in 2010. The blast cost him one eye and most of his lower jaw. He spent more than two years in Walter Reed National Military Medical Center before medically retiring from the service last year.
He received a hero’s welcome during the luncheon, and thanked the audience for their support. “(You pulled) together from the second I got injured, sending me letters of encouragement and support,” he said. “I always tell people every chance I get that I’m here because people like you are behind me.”
But he said the families of Alt and Chaffin had made a larger sacrifice than his own.
Carpenter is scheduled to receive the Medal of Honor in a June 19 White House ceremony.
Adjutant General Robert Livingston, an Afghan vet himself who now leads the South Carolina National Guard, said it’s critical that the stories for all three are honored.
“So many of our children don’t understand the sacrifice made on their behalf, that you can serve something greater than yourself,” he said during the ceremony. “It’s important to tell these stories so they’ll understand.”