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Parents of fallen North Aurora  soldier welcome  his comrades

Mary Robert Pattersadmire portrait their sChris Patterswhile speaking about his life BeacNews columnist Denise Crosby Wednesday September 26 2012 North

Mary and Robert Patterson, admire the portrait of their son Chris Patterson, while speaking about his life to Beacon News columnist Denise Crosby, on Wednesday, September 26, 2012 in North Aurora IL. The painting of Chris was a gift to the Patterson family from Utah based artist Kaziah Hancock. | Terence Guider-Shaw~For Sun-Times Media

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Updated: October 29, 2012 6:50AM

Mary and Bob Patterson realize that burying a child under any circumstances is excruciating. But losing a son or daughter in the military, they insist, puts its own hellish twist on grief.

It’s a pain they’ve felt since January, when the North Aurora couple was notified their 20-year-old son Christopher had been killed by a roadside bomb in Afghanistan.

It’s not just the shocking notification or the funeral that soon follows. The parents also had to travel to Dover Air Force Base for the return of Christopher’s body. A week later, items on him at the time of his death arrived from the mortuary. Two weeks after that, they received eight trunks of his other personal items, including clothing that, Mary noticed, “still had the stink of Afghanistan” on them.

“You just keep losing him,” she said, tears welling in her eyes Wednesday night as she sat next to her husband in a living room surrounded by reminders of their fallen hero. “And you wonder when is it going to stop.”

Last weekend, those wounds were ripped open again when Chris’s unit, the Indiana National Guard 713th Engineer Company, arrived back in the States. Reality hit particularly hard, Mary said, because “Your son was not among them ... your son is never coming home.”

To help ease this grief, the Pattersons spent months convincing the Indiana National Guard and the United States Army to allow them, along with the other five families who lost loved ones from the 713th Engineer unit this past year, to travel to Fort Bliss, Texas, and visit with the Guardsmen before they left for Indiana to reunite with their own families.

It took some convincing — Army officials were worried about negative affects on the GIs — but last weekend the Pattersons “broke ground” when they became the first Gold Star parents to meet with a returning unit even before its official homecoming.

On Saturday, they gathered with senior officers in an emotional meeting that helped them realize how valuable Christopher had been to the 713th, which sustained record-breaking casualties. The following day, they attended a barbecue that gave the unit’s soldiers a chance to talk to the parents.

The Pattersons brought with them a large white flag their youngest son, Carl, who is a Marine, designed in his older brother’s memory. “It broke the ice,” Bob Patterson said of the flag their son’s comrades signed.

The stories shared were happy ones — the kind, Mary says, “Chris would have told” had he survived.

The men recalled Chris wearing the brown robe sent by his parents so he could live up to his nickname “Radar”; teasing him about his driver’s license photo that made him look 12. They also learned how their deeply spiritual son brought others, including an avowed atheist, back to Christ.

The experience was so positive, Bob says, the Army is now talking about offering this opportunity to other Gold Star families. But now that it has passed, he and his wife must set about doing what they can to fill the void ... yet again.

The most important step, they insist, is finding ways to keep Christopher’s memory alive. Before he left for Afghanistan, he’d designed a “challenge coin” — a medallion used in different military units to prove membership and enhance morale — that combined his passion for the military and music. At the Phi Mu Alpha music fraternity’s national convention this summer in Orlando, Fla., Bob presented those coins that will be distributed to all service men and women who share this love.

There are also several memorial scholarships at West Aurora High School, where Christopher was a 2009 graduate; and Valparaiso University, where he’d been studying music before is deployment.

And there’s plenty of activities, many with other Gold Star families, that have kept the Pattersons busy. This summer, Bob and Mary (who admits to being scared of heights) even went skydiving with the Army’s Golden Knight Parachuters in a “Leap of Faith” to help overcome their fears in honor of their son’s bravery.

The healing weekend at Fort Bliss was needed, Bob Pattersons says. When he returned home, he finished cleaning out Christopher’s room. Their son was a hoarder, Mary added, with a laugh. His parents found items ranging from scraps of paper containing half-written songs to Halloween candy from Chris’ sophomore year in high school.

“We kept it all,” said his mom.

That is how you survive, the Pattersons conclude. By remembering. By letting coping skills kick in. But in the end, they both agree, it’s still all about “taking one day at a time.”

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