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Never forget: Annual memorial services in South Jeffco honor fallen air medics

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By Deborah Swearingen

Mark Mennie could organize his cardboard box of flameless, tealight candles, but he chooses not to.

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This way, as families and friends dig through the box, searching for the candle with a familiar name, they are forced to remember.

“That’s part of the process,” said Mennie, a specialized air medical photographer. “ … It’s not organized. It’s designed for people to have to dig and to have to look at other names that they might not come across. That’s how we initiate the process of ‘never forget.’”

Last Friday, as the sky began to darken, some 400 battery-powered candles illuminated the grass and the Flight for Life helicopter, which landed earlier that day outside Heritage United Methodist Church in South Jeffco. Each candle honored a specific person, and there was one for every air medic who has died since 1972.

The memorial event, held near the future site of the International Air Medical Flight Crew Memorial, included a candlelight vigil on Friday and a sunrise service on Saturday. The physical memorial will one day be constructed in South Jeffco, thanks to the hard work of Lakewood resident Steven Sweeney.

Sweeney said he and his brother always had an interest in the air medical industry and ultimately compiled a database of all those who died while working in it.

Last weekend’s services were the culmination of the Colorado National EMS Memorial Bike Ride — a five-day ride with the last day starting in Idaho Springs, heading over Squaw Pass into Evergreen before descending to South Jeffco. People from across the country attended to light a candle in honor of those lost.

As Mike Paston, an air medic from Oklahoma who participated in the memorial bike ride, made his way from Idaho Springs to Evergreen to South Jeffco, he remembered those lost. Personally, he knew at least six of the names on the candles.

“This is important,” he said. “ … It’s to my heart for sure. It’s emotional.”

Diane Juarez of Fresno, Calif., lost her son Kyle in a 2015 Skylife helicopter crash. For Diane, the annual air medic memorial service is a source of comfort and an opportunity to grieve with others who understand.

“That’s why I come,” she said. “ ... It helps to be with other people who have experienced the same kind of loss.”

Another mother, Kim Auld of Shreveport, La., lost her son John in a helicopter crash last year. As a newcomer, she, too, appreciates the service for its ability to connect families and for its location.

“You feel closer to the sky here,” Auld said, looking out as the Colorado sun set behind the Front Range.

She echoed many of the same sentiments as Juarez, saying only those who have lost in this way can understand the “paralyzing grief.”

James Green of Texas agreed with Juarez and Auld. He serves on the PHI Air Medical Honor Guard and frequently attends the National EMS Memorial Service in Washington D.C. There’s just something special about last weekend’s services in South Jeffco, though, since the two events are dedicated solely to fallen air medics.

“This is our own little niche, where we can sort of take care of our own,” he said.

Later in the evening, Green held a tealight candle in honor of one of the five or six fallen air medics he knew personally.

“I talked to her for two hours before she died,” he said with a tear in his eye.

Contact reporter Deborah Swearingen at dswearingen@evergreenco.com or 303-350-1042. Follow her on Twitter @djswearingen.