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New generation of Gold Star families honor their fallen loved ones

By Jillian Harding, CNN
Debbie Higgins' motorcycle carries the image of her son, Lance Cpl. James Higgins Jr., who died in Iraq.
Debbie Higgins' motorcycle carries the image of her son, Lance Cpl. James Higgins Jr., who died in Iraq.
  • Families who lost loved ones in Iraq and Afghanistan gather to pay tribute
  • The weekend of remembrance was organized by Families United
  • Debbie Higgins' son James was killed in Iraq four years ago
  • Higgins is working to honor her son's wish for a National Fallen Heroes Memorial

Arlington, Virginia (CNN) -- On a blistering hot July morning, Debbie Higgins arrived at Arlington National Cemetery to honor the memory of her son, Marine Lance Cpl. James Higgins Jr., who was killed in Iraq on July 27, 2006.

"Mama Higgins," as she is known to members of her son's unit, was not alone.

Hundreds of Gold Star families -- whose loved ones were killed while serving their country -- on Saturday joined members of the support organization Families United at the cemetery's Tomb of the Unknowns to pay tribute.

The service was part of a weekend of remembrance for relatives of U.S. military personnel killed while serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. More than 2,000 families were expected to attend the events.

With hands over their hearts or raised to their foreheads in salute, family members watched and listened as a wreath was laid on the tomb and a single trumpet played "Taps."

After the ceremony, a motorcade made its way through the cemetery grounds to Section 60, the part of Arlington where many of the fallen soldiers from Iraq and Afghanistan are buried.

Family members placed small painted stones, flags and flowers on the gravesites. Some left photos or notes; others simply sat quietly at their loved ones' headstones.

"To lose a child changes your entire life," Higgins said. "It's my son's wish that keeps me going."

That wish was for a memorial to those killed in ongoing conflicts, something the Marine mentioned to his mother during one of their final phone conversations.

"It will be the National Fallen Heroes Memorial, and it will be from first killed after Vietnam until the end of Operation Iraqi Freedom," Higgins said. "We're going to remember them all."

The memorial is privately funded and will be located on Route 15, just north of Frederick, Maryland.

But Higgins has also made her own personal tribute to her son: a motorcycle, painted with his image, which carries the symbol and motto of the U.S. Marine Corps: Semper Fidelis -- Always Faithful.

The seat of the motorcycle is made from the door of the Hummer in which Higgins' son was fatally wounded during his last tour in Iraq just a week before he was scheduled to come home.

On Saturday, Higgins' motorcycle led the motorcade of families through the cemetery, from the Tomb of the Unknowns to the graves of their own fallen soldiers.

She said she is proud that her motorcycle is an inspiration to others and that she can continue to honor the life of her son.

"He was so proud, and he loved his country," Higgins said. "He loved the United States and the American flag and everything that it represents."