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A Seat at The Table: A Local VFW Remembers Those Lost

Friends gathered Monday night for brews, stories and reflection on their losses in the aftermath of Sept. 11.

The table’s empty.

I mean, it’s full of people, absolutely jam-packed with extra chairs pulled ‘round, husbands, wives, backslapping buddies, old pals, new ones who act old. Guys have to clutch and cluster all the Miller and Bud bottles that make up a round into an awkward bouquet. (“Man flowers,” one woman calls it.) It’s a crowd, a heap of people at this overloaded, filled-to-the-brim table.

But it’s empty, an emptiness you can feel. More accurately than “empty,” the table by the door at the Midlothian VFW Post 2580 is filled with people who aren’t there.

For Midlothian Deputy Fire Chief Dave Mager, it’s 343 New York firefighters and paramedics, 23 NYPD officers and 37 Port Authority officers who aren’t at the table.

For Oak Forest Veterans Committee Chairman Craig Miller, it’s the thousands of American military personnel killed in Iraq and Afghanistan — 5,989 by the most recent Pentagon figures — who are missing.

For machinist Paul Abeyta, it’s just one person whose absence fills the room.

Everyone at that packed, empty table at the VFW is glad Osama bin Laden, the man who ordered the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, is dead. But no matter how proud the crowd is of the military and the men and women in it, Monday was also a reminder that not everyone can share the day.

“I wish he could be here today to see what he did,” Paul Abeyta later said about his son Chris as we stood in the entranceway looking at the 23-year-old’s funeral card, laminated and placed behind glass on a corkboard.

'Tears, Beers and Cheers'

They had a memorial earlier in the day, with a moment of silence and the mayor and all the stuff you should have for days like Monday. It was nice, they said.

But the real recuperation came later that night as they laughed and joked, cried and told stories. Some of the stories were happy. Some were sad. Most were both.

“Tears, beers and cheers: That’s what the VFW brings,” Miller said, smiling, sipping a Miller and wearing a T-shirt with a picture of his cousin Josh Rath, born in Tinley Park in 1986, killed in Kandahar in 2009.

Mager was also wearing memories, but his metal bracelet honors someone he never met, New York firefighter Christian Regenhard. Regenhard was six weeks out of the academy when he was killed in the World Trade Center.

Mager went to New York in October 2001 for the firefighters, to attend their funerals and honor their sacrifice. He brought their funeral cards to the empty packed table Monday night. The men and women of the table would occasionally flip through them, pausing at one card or another to read a fact, look at a picture, scan a prayer.

The topic turned to the families of those heroes, the families of all 3,000 people killed that day.

“You look at 3,000 lives,” American Legion Post 691 Commander Paul Klimczak said from his seat at the table. “Each of those lives had lives connected to them. (Osama bin Laden) didn’t just take 3,000 lives in the blink of an eye. He affected 100,000 lives.”

Loss

“It doesn’t bring me closure,” Paul Abeyta said of bin Laden’s death. “I mean, I’m glad he’s dead, but it doesn’t change nothing.”

Chris is still gone. He was Paul’s only child. They looked a lot alike.

Sgt. Christopher Paul Abeyta was killed by a roadside bomb in Afghanistan on March 15, 2009.

“I’m going to church now and I’m going to grief counseling, but it doesn’t get any easier. It gets harder,” Paul Abeyta said. “If it wasn’t for this place here, I don’t know where I would be.”

The table is full of friends, people who care for each other. Earlier in the night, they had an impromptu baby shower for a young couple just because. They help those they can and those they can’t, they remember, not just on days like Monday.

“Osama bin Laden gets killed, it wakes everyone up again. You get people hanging off lampposts in Times Square,” Klimczak said. “Don’t remember for one day. Don’t remember for a remembrance. Don’t just remember for a funeral and then go back to your daily lives.”

Osama bin Laden’s death is good news to the crowd at the VFW, but it doesn’t bring back the people who should be at the table.

Patch will be at the Tinley Park American Legion Post 615 tonight to collect more reactions to Osama bin Laden's death. Share your story with us there or on our Facebook page.

For more on Josh Rath and Craig Miller, visit Family of Tinley-Born Soldier Killed in Action 'Celebrate the Defeat' of Osama bin Laden.

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