It was in 2003 that Bill Tomko of Harrisville's nephew was killed while serving in the military in Baghdad, Iraq.
Tomko, a veteran of the Vietnam War, knew his nephew's father was "low income" and thought about what could be done for families going through similar tragedies.
"I came up with the idea of helping the families with their basic needs, whatever it might be, like car repair or utility bills or prescriptions," Tomko said.
In 2004, Tomko founded the Western PA Families of Fallen Heroes Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to assisting immediate family members of the more than 300 military members killed in Iraq or Afghanistan from the region.
The organization travels to Meadville Area Senior High School at 1 p.m. today for its annual Memorial-Honor Ceremony. The event takes place in the MASH gymnasium.
According to Tomko, the ceremony will begin with a dove release followed by the posting and retiring of the colors, a rifle salute, a performance of "Taps" and the singing of "The Star-Spangled Banner" and "God Bless America." Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 2006 will assist.
Tomko said the display for the ceremony will take up the complete gym floor, which takes the organizers more than 90 minutes to arrange. Part of the display includes a wooden podium created by a Grove City carpenter and his wife expressly for Families of Fallen Heroes.
"My main job when I do this is to bring the hurt that the families went through with the pride of the families," Tomko said. "Their loved ones were heroes when they died. I really bring an emotional ceremony. I want to bring over to the public what we feel like as family members and try to get them in touch with us."
The organization chooses one county from western Pennsylvania each year to host the ceremony each second Saturday in June. This marks the first time Families of Fallen Heroes has held the event in Crawford County. Tomko said he will begin work on the next ceremony in Lawrence County in two weeks.
In the past, Families of Fallen Heroes has offered support for families facing auto repairs or high prescription costs and provides a maximum of $300 to each family per year.
"I was at the Meadville (Memorial Day) parade, and the one thing about the public coming out to this event — that shows us that people care, and that gives us strength to know that strangers that don’t even know us care," Tomko said.
Tyler Dague can be reached at 724-6370 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.