By Staff Sgt. Neysa Canfield | 2nd Infantry Brigade Combat Team Public Affairs Office, 4th Infantry Division
FORT CARSON, Colo. — Twenty-two bell rings were heard over the wind while the Soldiers, veterans and Family members from the 2nd Battalion, 77th Field Artillery Regiment, 2nd Infantry Brigade Combat Team, 4th Infantry Division, took a moment of silence May 24, 2019, during a memorial ceremony.
“We did a memorial ceremony for all of the fallen inside of the (battalion) and a special emphasis on those who lost their lives in support of Operation Enduring Freedom,” said Lt. Col. Aaron Thomas, commander 2nd Bn., 77th FA Reg., 2nd IBCT.
Twenty-one of the rings were dedicated to each campaign the regiment had been part of, and the 22nd was dedicated to a specific fallen Soldier.
“We did a special ringing of the bell for Sgt. Elijah Rao and recognized his sacrifice in front of his Family,” said Thomas. “We were lucky enough today to have Gold Star Family members of Sgt. Elijah Rao (attend); his mother, Sharon Hauerken, his wife, Leah, and his daughter, Eliana.”
Rao, a native of Lake Oswego, Oregon, enlisted in the Army in May 2004 as a field artillery metro crewmember.
“After seeing what happened on 9/11, he wanted to join,” said Hauerken. “He was 21 at the time he had a job. He had a place of his own and had no reason to leave. There was nothing as his mom that I could say that would change his mind.”
After spending time at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, Elijah Rao and his wife moved to Fort Carson.
While at Fort Carson, Elijah Rao deployed to Baghdad, Iraq, with the 2nd Bn., 17th FA Reg., 2nd IBCT in 2006 for 14 months, and then in 2009 he deployed to Afghanistan with the 2nd Bn., 77th FA Reg., 2nd IBCT.
On Dec. 5, 2009, while on patrol in western Nuristan Province, Afghanistan, Elijah Rao and his fellow comrades were attacked by enemy forces with an improvised explosive device. He was killed by the wounds sustained from the IED.
“Everybody hopes and prays that it won’t be their loved one, but it’s always someone’s loved one over the centuries, and it just happened to be ours that time,” said Hauerken. “It hurts, but we are very proud of him and we will never forget him.”
For some members of Elijah Rao’s Family, the stories, photos and memories are something that they hold dear to their hearts.
“(Our daughter) was almost 2 years old when it happened so unfortunately, she has been raised with a lot of tears when we mention his name,” said Leah Rao.
“I am trying to bring happiness as we reach 10 years, I am trying to make it less sad and more honorable remembering him.”
The leaders of the battalion showed the Family the room dedicated to their fallen Soldier. According to Leah Rao, these gestures help her show her daughter the hero her father was and continues to be.
“Having a room dedicated to him, having a memorial service, having his name scribed on a wall is something I can take her to and she can take her kids to (in the future),” said Leah Rao. “Her father will be remembered forever.”
For Leah Rao the ceremony brings a sense of healing.
“It brought out some emotions that I haven’t had in a long time — that I have pushed aside,” she said. “It doesn’t get easier you just get better at dealing with it.”
The ceremony allows Families and friends of fallen Soldiers to connect, Thomas said.
“I did not know (Elijah Rao) but we have a lot of veterans from that deployment (who) knew him and its good for them to share their stories and what they remember about (him) with his Family,” said Thomas.
For Thomas, Memorial Day is about recognizing all who have paid the ultimate sacrifice and to realize freedom isn’t free, he said.
“People pay the price with their lives, and then the Family members are left behind to continue to pay that price through the rest of their lives,” Thomas said.