Gold Stars: A Symbol of Sacrifice and Commitment to Families of the Fallen
(May 30, 2011)
News Service (May 27, 2011) -- Donna Engeman started wearing the Gold
Star lapel pin after her husband, Chief Warrant Officer John Engeman,
was killed southeast of Baghdad on May 14, 2006. She wanted to honor and
remember the man she admired as "superman."
But she soon
realized the significance of the star was lost on others.
long after his death, she tried to order a Gold Star license plate at
the DMV. The clerk unknowingly asked if Engeman was the service member.
When she replied no, she was not, the clerk told Engeman her husband
needed to be with her.
The clerk thought she wanted a disabled
veteran license plate, and Engeman couldn't get her to understand the
difference between a Gold Star and a Purple Heart - an awkward
conversation, indeed. They were both relieved when she left.
Awkward too, when people say, "I love that pin, it goes so well with
your outfit." Or when they ask, "Where do you get one?"
funny and ironic" Engeman said. "You want people to know about their
sacrifice, but you don't want to stand there and grab someone by the
collar and yell, 'He's dead!' So you just walk away, shake your head and
eat some chocolate. That's when I get mad at him all over again and say,
'You left me with this.'"
It's a feeling many Gold Star
Survivors know, and unfortunately, her experience is not an isolated
one. She's seen that, despite being at war for nearly a decade, even
many military personnel still don't know what a Gold Star signifies.
The lack of recognition, not just for Survivors, but for their loved
ones, hurts deeply.
"It's disheartening to be so far into this
war, yet when I drive around with a bumper sticker and pin and people
just don't know," she said.
Engeman uses her experience in her
work as a survivor advocate and special projects coordinator for the
Family and Morale, Welfare and Recreation Command's Survivor Outreach
Services. As a Gold Star Wife and advocate, she believes that more needs
to be done to increase awareness.
According to Engeman, the Army
is working hard to ensure Survivors don't feel quite so alone. As part
of this initiatives, FMWRC established SOS in October, 2008. Its mission
is to build a unified support program that embraces and reassures
Survivors that they are continually linked to the Army Family for as
long as they desire. The comprehensive program is designed to meet the
needs of Survivors with a wide-range of support, services and programs.
For example, last year SOS established Survivor Decals to make
it easier for those without Department of Defense identification cards
to enter installations. Before that, Survivors had to get a visitor or
temporary vehicle pass to access garrisons and the SOS programs and
services offered there.
Congress, too, made strides last year to
honor Survivors by designating Dec. 18 as Gold Star Wives Day. Gold Star
Mother's Day, held on the last Sunday in September, has recognized the
sorrow and sacrifice of mothers of fallen sons and daughters every year
But still, many people "just don't know" what the
Gold Star is, even though its history dates to World War I.
today, Families hang service banners outside their homes if they had a
loved one serving overseas. There were two types of service banners: One
has a white background, red border and blue stars that indicate the
number of family members serving in harm's way. The other has a white
background, blue border and gold stars, indicating the number of Family
members killed in combat. From these banners grew the terms Gold Star
Mothers, Wives and Family Members.
In 1967, an Act of Congress
standardized the service banners and established the Gold Star lapel
pins to issue to immediate Family members of servicemembers killed in
combat, including those who have committed suicide in theater. The Next
of Kin pin signifies a service-related death or suicide during active
duty other than combat.
A senior general officer, representing
the Army itself, usually presents the pin and colors to the spouse or
next of kin during the funeral. Casualty assistance officers coordinate
this solemn rite.
"Not everyone is congenial about receiving the
pin or flag, and it's presumptuous to assume so," said Edward Maney,
Casualty Assistance Center chief at Ft. Sam Houston. "But it's our way
of extending our heart to them."
As senior Army chaplain at
Arlington National Cemetery from 1996 to 2000, Maney has become familiar
with the delicate process of grieving and healing. He believes the Gold
Star program needs to be better integrated into the "fabric of the
military and society" across the board.
Charlene Westbrook, a
Gold Star Wife, agrees that more needs to be done to increase awareness.
Like Engeman, she has had her share of uncomfortable experiences.
She became familiar with Gold Star pins long before her husband, Sgt.
1st Class Kenneth Westbrook, died on Oct. 7, 2009, from injuries
sustained in an ambush in Iraq.
His brother and her sister's
husband were both killed in Iraq in 2005, so she knew that those who
wear the tiny gold star bear a loss heavier than any medal can convey.
Still, she hoped at least members of the military and those who work
with them would understand.
So she was surprised when during a
trip to her local installation to register her three sons, ages 21, 19
and 16 for an Army-sponsored event, some Army employees didn't
understand the significance of the Gold Star. It had been just a month
after her husband died, she explained to the employee, and they weren't
feeling so good.
"I told them, 'We're a Gold Star Family, and
we're kind of fragile right now,'" she said. "They were like, 'What's
that?' with no compassion."
Emotions flared, the manager was
summoned and apologized after Westbrook submitted a customer complaint.
But the sting of the slight lingered.
"It almost feels
disrespectful," she said. "I just wish there was some kind of training
or acknowledgment for military and civilian personnel who work on
installations to be more aware of what the Gold Star means and to have
that compassion. I didn't want them to treat us like eggs, but just to
know that we're in this state."
It's a familiar story Gold Star
Survivors tell in groups like the Gold Star Wives, Gold Star Mothers and
Gold Star Dads, which came together for support and healing. They also
work to promote the ideals of the military and to support veterans,
service members and each other. The Gold Star Mothers, started in 1929,
and the Gold Star Wives, formed in 1945, are both chartered by Congress.
"There's an unspoken bond among Survivors -- it doesn't matter
whether he or she is a widow, parent or child. People I don't even know
walk up to me and put their arm around me, and that's very comforting,"
Engeman said. "When you see the star and the banner, you just know." But
for those who don't know, she urged, try to understand. "Don't be afraid
to thank Survivors for their sacrifice," she said. "Remember what the
Donna Engeman and other Gold
Star family members talk about their fallen loved ones in the video