Athena Mihalakis Wilson clutched a framed photo of her smiling nephew, dressed in military fatigues with his hair cropped close. Standing next to her was her son, Christopher Wilson, holding a U.S. flag with a yellow ribbon blowing at its tip.
“This flag flew over his parents’ house the whole time Mike was deployed in Iraq,” Mihalakis Wilson said. “He died the day after Christmas in 2003 just two weeks before he was to return home.”
Army National Guard Spc. Michael Mihalakis was 18 when his Humvee overturned near the Baghdad airport, killing him. Mihalakis had enlisted and become a military police officer after graduating from high school in Milpitas and attending one semester at Cuesta College in San Luis Obispo.
Today, his name is one of 250 engraved on the walls of Atascadero’s Faces of Freedom Veterans Memorial, which honors San Luis Obispo County residents who died while serving in the military.
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On Monday, Mihalakis Wilson and her son walked the few blocks from her Atascadero home to the Memorial Day ceremony at the Faces of Freedom memorial. Like the hundreds of others gathered there — and at Memorial Day tributes across the county — they came to honor Mike and all those who have died while serving in the U.S. armed forces.
“The most important thing we want to share about Mike is that he was very proud of the work that he did,” Wilson said. “He was proud to be an American soldier.”
Some who attended Monday’s ceremony turned out to honor the legacies of those they never knew.
Morro Bay resident Irene “Dede” Lopez came in memory of her great uncle, Richard Gonzalez.
“My great-grandmother raised me, and she always mourned for her son who died in the Korean War when he was 18,” she said, her eyes welling with tears at the memory. “It has always stayed with me. She didn’t want him to go, but she said he went to fight for our freedom.”
The Atascadero ceremony included a presentation of colors, laying of a wreath, patriotic music and a military flyover by veterans from the Estrella Warbirds Museum in Paso Robles.
The dozens of veterans in attendance also were honored and asked to stand as songs from each branch of the military were played while flags from each branch snapped in the breeze.
Retired Army Staff Sgt. Jonathan Benton gave the keynote address, his remarks particularly directed at veterans. Benton is now program director of the Mighty Oaks Warrior Program in San Miguel, a faith-based program organization for veterans and their families struggling with post-military issues.
Benton recalled his own struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder after surviving the bloody Battle of Wanat in Afghanistan on July 13, 2008, when nine soldiers in his platoon were killed and 27 injured.
He said that for years he was haunted by thoughts of “what if” — what if the day had unfolded differently or what if he had done anything differently. Relief finally came when he attended a Mighty Oaks program in 2013 and learned that his pain was normal but that he had a choice to either relive the past or move forward.
For those veterans honoring Memorial Day by grieving for what could have been, Benton had a message for them:
“Memorial Day is not living in the past,” he said. “It is not getting stuck in the cycle of asking why or why not me, or what I could have done differently. ... It is about remembering those who made an oath to protect and defend this great nation. It is about those men and women who fulfilled their oath with the ultimate sacrifice. “
“My final challenge to you,” he said, “is to move forward — and honor our fallen. Not just today but every day.”