Yolanda Mercado, mother of fallen Service member, Pfc. Jalfred D. Vaquerano, made an opening speech to kick off the 2nd Annual Operation Love Letters event, hosted at the Veterans Memorial Park and Museum.

Operation Love Letters takes place at 16 locations throughout the United States. Mercado is one of many mothers of fallen Service members who gather annually for this event to honor their loved ones. For Mercado, this event was an opportunity to celebrate the life of her son who was killed in action on Dec. 13, 2011, while deployed to Afghanistan.

Jerimiah Robinson (left) and cousin, Denareya Owens (middle), create memory boxes with the help of Marc Aghedo (right), 335th Signal Command’s Director of Army Reserve Child, Youth and School Services. The boxes are created and dedicated to fallen service members, and Robinson is dedicating his box for his uncle who died in Vietnam, and Owens for her grandfather who died in World War II. This activity is part of Operation Love Letters, which is an annual patriotic celebration to honor fallen service members through fellowship with family and friends gathered together writing love letters, scripting poetry, sharing loveable memories of their service member, and enjoying the offerings of some very special guests. This year, the event was held at Veterans Memorial Park in Tampa on Feb. 19, 2017.

Jerimiah Robinson (left) and cousin, Denareya Owens (middle), create memory boxes with the help of Marc Aghedo (right), 335th Signal Command’s Director of Army Reserve Child, Youth and School Services. The boxes are created and dedicated to fallen service members, and Robinson is dedicating his box for his uncle who died in Vietnam, and Owens for her grandfather who died in World War II. (Photo by Sgt. 1st Class Kenneth Scott, Army Reserve Medical Command)

As she pondered memorable moments had with her son, she described the joy she felt at Jalfred’s graduation from basic training, in contrast with the sadness she felt when he deployed.

“One of the fondest memories that I have about my son was when he graduated basic training at Fort Benning,” said Mercado. “He was at Basic Training for three months, which was the longest he had ever been away from home.”

“One of the saddest moments was when he came to say goodbye before deployment,” she said. “Of course not counting when he was killed. It seems that no matter how many good memories, the last memories remain.”

Mercado has found that being an active participant of Survivor Outreach Services is a source of strength. Previous SOS events, such as OLL, have been recognized as a great resource to expand peer-to-peer survivor support, gain spiritual insight and resilience, and interact with command leadership, family program directors, chaplains, child and youth services, and community partners.

Attendees of the Operations Love Letters release balloons at the conclusion of the event, Feb. 19, 2017.

Attendees of Operation Love Letters release balloons at the conclusion of the event, Feb. 19, 2017. (Photo by Brian D. Godette)

“We go to so many ceremonies, and I am very grateful that they want to honor our sons and daughters. Today is different. There are no gun salutes, and there are no Taps,”said Mercado. “It’s all about remembering their lives and sharing that with everyone else.”

“We write letters and attach them to balloons, which we later release in remembrance of the fallen. It’s a relaxed environment,” she explained. “We are still honoring our loved ones, but in a different way.”

Mercado is a member of American Gold Star Mothers Inc., an organization for mothers who have lost a son or daughter through their service. She is also a member of Blue Star Mothers of America Inc., an organization for mothers, grandmothers, and stepmothers of children serving in the Armed Forces, to include veterans. Her membership with Blue Star Mothers is in relation to her oldest son, Army veteran, Staff Sgt. Carlos Vaquenaro.

Mercado’s involvement with SOS, as well as Gold Star Moms, has a goal of guiding family members through the process of coping with the loss of their loved one. Her personal goal is to help raise awareness in how Families grieve the loss of their loved ones.

Mercado explained how the trials that we endure allow us to comfort others through their trials.

Sweet Memories: Fallen Service member dessert sharing, part of Operation Love Letters

Michele Carey and Linda Keneen prepare the desserts for Operation Love Letters attendees. These were favorite desserts of fallen service members remembered during the event by families in attendance. Sweet memories were created as families shared why the Service member chose this as their favorite dessert or some other detail that made an important memory to associate with the dessert. (Photo by Sgt. 1st Class Kenneth Scott, Army Reserve Medical Command)

“The trials that we go through allow us to experience hardship so we can help or comfort others,” Mercado said. “We don’t have to speak, [because] it’s the little things that count. A smile or a hug [or] just being there for a person who is suffering.”

Mercado said that all people experience grief in different ways and on different levels, and she described the pain experienced from the loss of her son as being unique.

“Jalfred was placed on life support on December eleventh. He was declared brain dead a few days later on December thirteenth. I had to make the decision to take him off life support,” said Mercado. “I then lost a sister from lung cancer a day later, and a couple weeks later my nephew was killed in a car accident.”

Mercado said it is important to have awareness when relating to other family members who have experienced the loss of a loved one.

“I never tell another Gold Star Mom, ‘I understand your pain.’ Although we have something in common, everyone goes through the grief process differently,” she said. “It would be better to say, ‘I have an idea of your pain,’ because the pain that I am experiencing may be different than everybody else. It may not be as dramatic to anybody else, but still it’s my pain. It is unique.”

Mercado said that placing the needs of others above your own correlates to the principles America’s military was founded on. She also said that embracing this mindset helps her to remain close to and remember her son.

“It’s about doing something for someone else. I helped plan OLL this year and last year,” said Mercado. “Instead of just thinking about my son, it’s about everybody. You become apathetic as opposed to sympathetic.”

Mercado placed an emphasis on Families who continue to support the military community after their loss.

“I’d like to think that I can provide support and comfort to fellow survivors, being a source of inspiration for those who share their unique problems,” said Mercado.

“I encourage families to attend OLL, but if the Family finds it to be too painful, I am understanding of that,” she said. “It’s true. It is painful, but it’s an opportunity for people to honor and remember [their] loved one.”


Written by Victor J. Washington, Strategic Communications Planner, Army Reserve Family ProgramsArmy Reserve Family Programs Logo