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Staff Sgt. James Tyler Grotjan remembered as cross-country tribute comes to Waterford

Waterford — Laura Prentice is part of a group no mother wishes to be in.

She is a Gold Star mom, having lost her son, Air Force Staff Sgt. James Tyler Grotjan, over three years ago at the age of 26.

Monday morning, Prentice could not contain her tears as members of the Tribute to Fallen Soldiers organization visited her home, honoring and remembering her son during the group's annual summer Memorial Torch Motorcycle Ride.

"He was a proud mama's boy," she said, remembering how her son would call her every day.

Tribute to Fallen Soldiers members visited Prentice's family days before completing a cross-country trek at Arlington National Cemetery outside Washington, traveling 6,000 miles and paying tribute to 75 fallen soldiers. The group, made up of veterans and volunteer bikers, escorts the Fallen Soldiers Memorial Flame, which is attached to an RV and remains lit during the visits to the families of fallen soldiers.

During the ceremony Monday, Warren Williamson, founder of Tribute to Fallen Soldiers, described the significance of the flame.

"The flame represents the spirit, life and sacrifice of every fallen soldier," he said.

Williamson spoke about "Ty" Grotjan and his eight years of service in the Air Force. Grotjan died July 12, 2018, after being exposed to toxic fumes in the United Arab Emirates.

The family received a plaque in recognition of Grotjan's distinguished service, a canvas photo of Grotjan with his dog, a customized vest patch, and a hand-drawn image of him in his uniform.

"The only thing Ty loved more than his country and dog was his wife and family," said Williamson.

Williamson asked the family to sign an American flag signed by all of the families of fallen soldiers. Before they continued on their journey, the Tribute to Fallen Soldiers group huddled around the family with town officials and friends in a moment of silence as Vince Gill's rendition of "Go Rest High on That Mountain" played.

Over 20 members of veteran and active-duty biker groups — the Green Knights, Riders of Fire, Defenders and Guardians of the Purple Heart — volunteered their time to show their support for Grotjan and his family.

Veteran and President of the Green Knights Vernon Powe of Groton and his secretary, Mat Tanner, a Ledyard veteran, said they attended events like this all the time and this was their second presence at a Tribute to Fallen Soldiers torch pass. Both Powe and Tanner are retired Navy officials.

"Mat and I knew Tyler's dad, Randy, when he served," said Powe of why they felt it important to be there.

Forming a long-distance friendship with Prentice by means of a Facebook Gold Star mothers group, Sheila Murphy traveled from Loganville, Ga., with her husband, Calvin, to meet and hug Laura in person.

The Murphys lost their son, Specialist Etienne Murphy, in 2017 in Syria. They were visited by the Tribute to Fallen Soldiers organization last July.

"I'm always going to be there for her," said Sheila Murphy, referring to Laura. "Only a mother can understand."

Family friend Leslie Hodges said the whole experience has been horrific for the family. She said they have looked over redacted reports of the incident that caused Grotjan's death and have many questions about what happened.

Hodges said the family plans on starting a campaign #JusticeforTyler to gather other families left with questions about the deaths of their fallen soldiers.

Prentice described the day as "very emotional" and said it was wonderful that Tribute to Fallen Soldiers had honored her son.

"It just proves he's not forgotten," she said.

j.vazquez@theday.com

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