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Rio Rancho remembers the victims of Sept. 11

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — We are still a couple of days away from that day, but already the flags, all 5,996 of them, are in place.

It’s a beautiful sight, those flags cascading over the green hills of the Vista Verde Memorial Park off Sara Road in Rio Rancho. But it’s a somber one, reflective, reminiscent of a day in which so much was lost, so many were lost.

Nieves Garcia adds his own touch to sheets of paper bearing the images of white doves in August at Cibola High School. (Joline Gutierrez Krueger/Albuquerque Journal)

Nieves Garcia adds his own touch to sheets of paper bearing the images of white doves in August at Cibola High School. (Joline Gutierrez Krueger/Albuquerque Journal)

Half of the flags – 2,998 of them – are small versions of Old Glory; the other half bear the image of a white peace dove and the handwritten name of one of the 2,998 souls who died Sept. 11, 2001, in the World Trade Center, the Pentagon or a rural Pennsylvania field when evil breached our shores.

The flags were placed early Friday by a band of volunteers, some who have risen with the dawn for flag duty all six years the memorial has been held at Vista Verde.

“The event has grown every year,” said Joan Stasi of Daniels Family Funeral Services, which organizes the memorial. “And every year, it seems to touch more and more people.”

The flags are traditionally set out days before 9/11 to draw attention, and not just for the day of the memorial service – which involves everything from bagpipes to the release of live doves into the heavens.

Flying the flags for one day seems not enough.

“It’s a chance to say, stop, take a moment, take a look, and remember,” Stasi said. “So many motorists pull in and do that. They ask about this. We stand outside and pass out pins and explain why we do this, why we remember, who we remember. It’s putting action into the words, ‘We will not forget.’ ”

And we will continue to teach.

On Aug. 11, other volunteers, some of whom had not yet been born in 2001, gathered in the lobby of Cibola High School to write in the 2,998 names on the white dove flags.

Many of the volunteers came from law enforcement agencies and fire departments and the Albuquerque Area Firefighters Random Acts, which, as the name implies, is a group of firefighters who even on their days off continue to give back to the communities they serve by doing good deeds for people in need.

Other volunteers came from the Children’s Cancer Fund of New Mexico, including Nieves Garcia, who at age 5 is too young to remember 9/11. But as a kid battling leukemia, he knows a little something about the fragility of life.

Nieves led the volunteers in the Pledge of Allegiance before they all sat down to work, his Mickey Mouse wizard hat from his Make a Wish trip to Disney World askew atop his head.

To him went the job of applying glittery stars on the dove flags and chatting with the other children in the group.

“He’s such a brave, funny little boy,” said Diana Trujeque, the fund’s executive director, who, along with husband George, founded the nonprofit in honor of their son, Erin, who died of cancer when he was 12.

Trujeque said her group volunteers for the 9/11 effort not just because of the day itself but because her group partners with Daniels Family Funeral Services to provide services and care should a child die.

This year’s memorial also honors the chaplains, whose job that day and every day is to provide comfort in times of loss. Special recognition will be paid to Sandoval County Fire Department Chaplain Kathy Thibodeaux, Albuquerque Fire Department Chaplain Patrick McKinney and Bernalillo County Fire Department Chaplains Matt Caward and Bill Henson.

“They’re a blanket of comfort for our first responders and for the families in crisis,” Stasi said.

Comfort was so necessary in those dark hours and days after that day. So was that sense of community, that coming together to grieve, to remember, to honor.

They are still necessary 12 years later. These flags, created and posted in their annual place of honor in Rio Rancho by this community of volunteers, help provide that, action into words, never forgetting.

UpFront is a daily front-page news and opinion column. Comment directly to Joline at 823-3603, or follow her on Twitter @jolinegkg. Go to to submit a letter to the editor.