It may have been 10 years since Rochert native Troy Linden was killed in Operation Iraqi Freedom, but for his mother, MerryLee Linden, the pain is still right beneath the surface.

“For mom, we celebrate Troy’s birthday (Jan. 29), and remember this day (the anniversary of his death, July 8, 2006) every year,” said daughter Sarah Linden Hudson on Friday. “She doesn’t want to be alone.”

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So her family and friends make sure that she isn’t. Every year, at least some of them manage to make the trip back to the Lindens’ home in rural Detroit Lakes, to help ease her pain by remembering happier times – and by making new memories, of time spent with loved ones.

“She wants to share her memories of Troy with the people who loved him,” Hudson says. “Every story someone tells her, she holds onto it tightly.”

Though the gatherings each year “ebb and flow” depending on who is available to come, she added, the 10-year anniversary was one that brought out “pretty much our whole extended family” to spend the weekend with the Lindens.

The anniversary also brought a few former members of Linden’s unit in Iraq, many of whom MerryLee hadn’t seen since she and her husband went to Germany to welcome the unit back to civilian life after their tour was finished.

“It’s a milestone,” said Luis Rivera, who now makes his home in Atlanta, Ga. “I’ve been wanting to come for years, but this being the 10 year anniversary, I just had to be here and spend time with his family.”

Another of Linden’s former Army mates, Sinuhe Montoya, made his first pilgrimage to the Lindens’ home this weekend as well – and brought his entire family, including his three-year-old son, Troy Linden Montoya.

For Montoya, the opportunity to introduce his son to the Lindens was one he couldn’t pass up; MerryLee noted proudly that the boy had introduced himself as “Troy Linden Montoya,” and when asked who he was named after, responded promptly, “Papa’s hero.”

The boy’s father revealed that his reverence for Linden’s memory goes slightly beyond that he might give to a fallen friend and comrade.

“He took my place,” Montoya said, noting that he and Linden had swapped shifts on the day that the then-22-year-old was killed by an exploding IED (improvised exploding device) while out on a combat operation in Ramadi, Iraq. Also killed in the incident were three other soldiers who were out on patrol with him.

“I wouldn’t be standing here if he hadn’t swapped with me,” Montoya said somberly, adding that he would never have married, and his son and daughter – two-year-old Lyric, who was also there with him this weekend – would never have been born.

“It’s the first time… but it won’t be the last,” Rivera said, as Montoya nodded in agreement.

“I like it out here,” Montoya said, looking around the Lindens’ property as he and Rivera sat out on the front lawn, sharing a beer and catching up with each other’s lives since returning from the war.

MerryLee Linden said that the presence of Montoya and Rivera at her home this weekend came as an almost complete surprise.

“My sister told me I was getting some surprise guests, but didn’t want me to know who, so I wouldn’t go all out crazy with getting ready – which I do anyway,” she said with a little laugh, noting that this year her son Ryan and daughter Sarah had brought their families home early to help with the preparations for Saturday’s barbecue (husband Keith was at work on Friday afternoon, hauling turkey poults for Jenny O, but would return for Saturday’s gathering).

“They surprised me about half an hour ago,” she added, noting that the Montoyas had flown in from their home in San Diego, Calif., that morning, while Rivera arrived in the afternoon.

United in their grief, the Lindens welcomed the former soldiers into their home as family, and invited them and their families to accompany them out to Egelund Cemetery on Saturday, for a small graveside ceremony honoring their “Troy Boy,” as the name imprinted on the front of their commemorative t-shirts proudly proclaimed. Afterward, family and friends gathered for a barbecue, honoring MerryLee’s wish to fill the day with happier memories.