Gravett, Amron. “Gold Star Parents: Remembering Lives Sacrificed for Our Country,” Colorado Country Life, Sept 2014, cover + 16-19.
“Our story is one of deep, unthinkable sadness shouldered by the proudest of hearts. It is a story of the individual and the collective and it finds us alone, together. It is the story of those who have lost their children in war. For it is this story of loss that creates a need for a gathering, a gathering of wounded hearts that brings surviving parents and grandparents together. On the last weekend in September, families will come together in Steamboat Springs for the 11th annual Colorado Gold Star Parent’s Weekend.”
The loss of life during military campaigns is sometimes hard to fathom. Since the Revolutionary War in 1775, more than 1.3 million American soldiers have died in U.S. wars or military conflicts.(1) Between 2003 and 2012, nearly 4,500 Americans were killed in Operation Iraqi Freedom. There have been 2,300 casualties in the war in Afghanistan since 2001. Americans have lost nearly 6,800 soldiers in this most recent war on terror.(2)
The families of these soldiers endure this loss and its accompanying grief in profound and vivid ways, becoming trauma survivors themselves. As the Survivor Outreach Services of the U.S. Army states, “We know that there are no words or actions that can ever fully solace you in your loss, for there is no greater calling than to serve one’s nation with honor and dignity. For us, there is no greater duty than to support the families of those who have died in service to our nation.”(3)
Locally, additional support comes from others who are enduring the same loss, Colorado’s Gold Star Parents. The gold star has a long history as a symbol of sacrifice. During World War I and II, families hung handmade red and white banners in their windows so that their neighbors would know their loved ones were in active military service. Each blue star on the flag represented a family member on active duty. If a loved one died, the blue star would be covered with a gold star.
The Colorado Gold Star Parents gather the last weekend of September each year to honor all of the military servicemen and servicewomen who lost their lives in military service since 2000. Those honored were not all killed in action or terrorism incidents. Some died after returning home from wounds obtained during their service such as traumatic brain injuries or rapidly growing cancers. Some are deaths from training or car accidents. Some are suicides.
Losing a loved one leads to a delicate process of grieving and regrowth. There is a phenomenal strength of character that develops in a parent surviving his or her child and often weathering these emotions presents an emotional language all its own. It is often heard that it is not so much about healing as about management.
The deaths of these children are forcing these families to re-create their lives after loss. They do not seek to simply “move on” but rather to remember, honor and respect their children’s lives because there will always be a hole in their hearts.
“We’re not a group of people who just can’t ‘get over it.’ We survived a death that really changed us. All it takes is just learning a new way to love [them],” Gold Star child Jennifer Denard poignantly stated as she talked about her experience losing her father during the Vietnam War.
Bereaved parents often feel hopeless and isolated in their grief until they find others who are experiencing a similar loss. Although there are many groups online, there is no greater example of the importance of togetherness than in the Colorado Gold Star Parents Weekend. During that weekend, these parents and families embrace companionship and use empathy in a powerful way. Listening to others’ grief processes provides a path for forging a new life. Harnessing the medicinal power of friendship, the event extends a lifeline to these grieving families so that they don’t feel quite so alone.
The first Colorado Gold Star Mothers Weekend was organized in 2003 and gathered 28 families in Estes Park. This fall the 11th annual gathering will honor more than 220 fallen heroes with nearly 100 families in attendance at the Steamboat Springs event. The Colorado Blue Star Mothers, part of the national congressionally chartered veteran service organization, raises money all year from private and corporate sponsors to fund the event.
The weekend attendees come from all over the state. They come from the rural towns of Manzanola and Dolores and the urban centers of Denver and Colorado Springs. They even come from as far as Utah and New Mexico because there are no comparable events in those states.
They come to speak about their children, to say their names aloud, to share their children’s stories, both those of their lives and of their deaths. It provides a safe place where these parents and grandparents don’t need to worry about making someone else uncomfortable by speaking about their deep sadness or talking about their deceased children. Everyone else understands how they are feeling.
The Blue Star Mothers of Durango organizes the event for the state’s six chapters. Janna Schaefer, co-founder of the first Colorado chapter of the Blue Star Mothers, is herself a Gold Star wife. She is filled with a sense of honor to support these families and help them in their own grief journey. She also works as a mentor for TAPS, which is the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors and is a model example of healing through service to others.
“During this healing weekend, the Blue Star Moms provide information, resources, references, counselors, speakers, workshops and anything that will assist the parents on their grief journey,” asserts the Blue Star Mothers of Durango. “All are thankful for a place where they can freely express their grief, pride, joys, and sorrows. They can speak about their children and honor their lives where everyone understands.”
A slide show of the honored servicemen and servicewomen is shown during a special ceremony while each family lights a memorial candle. There are workshops and speakers on such topics as Iraq, new grief, suicide and traumatic brain injuries. There is a Hall of Heroes exhibit displaying the photographs and biographies of the Fallen Heroes of Colorado.
Grace Darling Siebold founded the American Gold Star Mothers after losing her son in World War I. She felt that self-contained grief was self-destructive, and she dedicated her time and efforts to supporting other mothers who also lost their sons during the war. The organization was founded in 1928 and chartered by Congress. Still today, they are committed to “perpetuate the memory of those whose lives were sacrificed in our wars.”
By presidential proclamation, Gold Star Mother’s Day is the last Sunday in September. It is a “public expression of the love, sorrow and reverence for the people of the United States for the American Gold Star Mothers.” It has recognized the mothers of fallen heroes since June 23, 1936.
“In 1947, Congress passed the U.S. Code (Section 1126, Title 10) issuing a gold lapel pin to widows, parents and next of kin of those who died while in action in one of the armed services.
In 2011, First Lady Michelle Obama and Jill Biden launched the Joining Forces initiative to engage communities in supporting returning troops and their families. “We wanted to make sure that never again would someone have to ask the question, what is a Gold Star family, and what does that sacrifice mean? We all should know,” the First Lady stated in her speech.
As Gen. George W. Casey Jr. (himself a Gold Star son) stated, “One of the things I think any survivor wants to know and feel is that their loved one’s sacrifice isn’t going to be forgotten.”
This is the legacy of the Colorado Gold Star Parents Weekend and of the work of the Colorado Blue Star Mothers. As Schaefer put it, “We hope they walk away from the weekend with a sense that they’ll be OK. That there are others walking right beside them.”
Grief Support Available for Families
If you or someone you know needs grief support after losing a loved one in military service, the following resources can help:
- For more information about the Colorado Gold Star Parent’s Weekend go to http://www.coloradogoldstarparentsweekend.com. Private and corporate donations fund this annual event. For those who support these efforts, 100 percent of all donations are fully tax-deductible and go to Colorado Gold Star Parent’s Weekend.
- The Blue Star Mothers of America, Inc. is a non-partisan, non-political organization. One of its stated goals is “to care for the unsupported mothers who gave their sons to the service of the nation.” http://www. bluestarmothers.org
- The Blue Star Mothers of America, Durango Chapter 1 was founded in 2003 by Janna Schaefer and Linda Mathews. It is one of six chapters in the state. It is a 501(c)3 organization whose mission is to support all service members, veterans, their families, and each other.
- American Gold Star Mothers was chartered in 1928. “We stand tall and proud by honoring our children, assisting our veterans, supporting our nation, and healing with each other.” It holds an annual national convention and works closely with other veteran’s organizations. http://goldstarmoms. com
- American Gold Star Wives, Inc. formed in 1945 to support the women who have lost their husbands in military service. http://goldstarwives.org.
- Gold Star Mothers of Colorado, Pikes Peak Chapter. http://ppgsm.webs.com.
- Survivor Outreach Services is a division of the U.S. Army supporting the needs of families who have lost a family member during their active duty in the Army. http://www.sos.army.mil/
- Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS). Founded in 1994, the not-for-profit organization has cared for more than 50,000 families of fallen heroes providing education, grief camps, seminars, training, and other tragedy support through its 24/7 toll-free help line at 1-800-959-TAPS (8277) or online at http://www.taps.org.
For more about the Gold Star Pins, go to http://www.goldstarpins.org.
If you wish to purchase a Colorado Fallen Service Member License Plate, go to the Colorado Department of Motor Vehicles, Military Plates website at http://www.colorado.gov/cs/Satellite/Revenue-MV/RMV/1201542141638.
Amron Gravett is an indexer and writer from a military family. She lovingly dedicates this article to her grandfather, Sylvester James Skowronski. He served in the U.S. Navy in World War II and passed away on July 17, 2014.