Mary Alice Horrigan stood in a knee-deep sea of 10,000 U.S. flags planted on the National Mall -- each one representing 100 American soldiers killed in action -- a total of over one million fallen heroes since the founding of the United States.
Among them was her son, Army Master Sgt. Robert M. Horrigan, who was killed by hostile fire in Iraq on June 17, 2005 at the age of 40, just a few weeks shy of his return date and already in the process of retirement after 20 years of military service.
"Robert volunteered for the mission that he died in," his mother told ABC News on Friday. "His team said, 'Don't go, you don't want to go, you don't need to go.' And he said, 'I'm not only going, I'm leading it.'"
Mary expected her son to come back, as the Delta Force commando had done so many times before, having been sent on multiple missions in Iraq and Afghanistan. But this time, he was the first to enter a room where, she says, “the people who they were trying to apprehend knew they were coming.”
Robert was posthumously awarded the Legion of Merit Medal, the Bronze Star Medal with Valor Device and the Purple Heart.
Master Sgt. Horrigan's ultimate sacrifice inspired the founding of the Austin-based non-profit Operation Honor Our Heroes, which has been shepherded by a small group of volunteers. Memorial Day weekend marks the first time they are planting flags in the nation's capital, many of them bearing photos of the recently fallen.
"We wanted people to see the human face of war, not just a flag, but the face of a person who died in that war," said Mary, whose friend Nancy Glass founded the organization and has helped her work through her grief.
Gazing out over the tidy rows of red, white, and blue flags, located just south of the Reflecting Pool between the Lincoln Memorial and the Korean War Memorial, Mary ruminated over the totality of all that has been lost.
"Some of them would come back and be lawyers, doctors, maybe discover a cure for cancer, or go to the moon, and they were cut down before they could do that," she said, of the fallen soldiers. "I mean, my son served 20 years, yes, but some of those kids didn't serve six months."
"People will forget because it isn't their family, their husband, their brother, their son," she said. "But Gold Star families will never forget, and what we hope to do is just show them the human face of war."
To find out how you can get involved with Operation Honor Our Heroes, visit http://www.honorheroes.org