Honor and respect for fallen service members and their families
As each day passes we watch the withdrawal of combat troops from Afghanistan as the United States nears the end of the longest war in our nation’s history.
Our soldiers and their families have sacrificed much over these past 13 years of war in both Afghanistan and Iraq.
But the greatest sacrifices of the men and women in uniform are those who made the ultimate sacrifice – the loss of life in the service of our country – and the impact of that loss on their families who now live with this for the rest of their lives.
It is because of this sacrifice that we remember, respect and honor those who gave their lives in the defense of our nation through the family members who wear a Gold Star or Next of Kin Lapel Button.
While the official name for these devices is the Gold Star or Next of Kin Lapel Button, you will generally hear the proud family members who wear these distinctive devices refer to them as Gold Star pins.
The history of the Gold Star symbolizes the service flags that were flown by families during World War I.
During this war, these red and white flags and banners with a blue star could be seen flying on homes or posted in the windows of those families who had an immediate family member serving in the armed forces of the United States.
If the service member was killed, a gold star was stitched over the blue star on the flag or banner.
Hence the term blue star and gold star mothers and families.
The 74th United States Congress designated June 23, 1936, as "Gold Star Mother’s Day," a national commemoration for all Americans to honor the service and sacrifice of Gold Star Mothers.
This Congressional Act was amended in 1985, when the last Sunday in September became "Gold Star Mother’s Day."
This last Sunday in September has further evolved to include not only Gold Star Mothers, but family members as well.
In a letter honoring Gold Star Mothers on Sept. 28, 2014, Secretary of the Army John McHugh, the Army chief of staff, Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, and Sergeant Major of the Army Raymond F. Chandler III wrote: "These Mothers stand at the center of the Gold Star network, offering love and support to kindred spirits, fellow survivors who have also lost a precious gift."
Congress approved wearing the Gold Star Lapel Button in 1947, making it retroactive to World War I as a way to recognize the families of service members who lose their lives while engaged in action against an enemy of the United States.
The Gold Star Lapel Button consists of a gold star on a purple background – think of the Purple Heart Medal – bordered in gold and surrounded by gold laurel leaves.
The button is normally presented to eligible family members prior to the military funeral service.
In 1977, the Army approved the issue and wear of the Next of Kin of Deceased Personnel Lapel Button, making it retroactive to March 29, 1973, to honor those who lost their lives while serving honorably on active duty or while assigned to an Army Reserve or Army National Guard unit in an active duty status.
The Next of Kin pin specifically recognizes those families who lost a loved one serving honorably outside the combat zone, but not engaged in actions against an enemy of the United States.
These two pins recognize the soldiers who were killed in combat and the soldiers who were killed preparing for combat.
The criteria for immediate family member qualifications to wear the Gold Star or Next of Kin Lapel Button includes the widow or widower, each child, stepchild, and adopted children; brothers, sisters, half-brothers, half-sisters, mother, father, stepmother, stepfather, adopted mother, adopted father and foster parents serving as loco parentis.
Family members who wear these symbols of honor allow all of us to recognize not only a military loss, but the personal loss and sacrifice to the family.
Gen. Odierno also said, "The Army is the strength of our nation, soldiers are the strength of our Army, and our families are the strength of our soldiers."
These lapel buttons identify the survivors and the family members who live on who want to remember, honoring and celebrating the legacy of their loved one’s life and their service to our nation.
Yes, these lapel buttons remind us that these warrior-heroes died honorably for us all.
Specifically for those soldiers lost during their service to our country, the Army provides these lapel buttons as a keepsake, identifying the next of kin of the soldiers who gave their all while defending the American way of life and as a reminder their service will not be forgotten.
"Our sacred obligation to our service members and their loved ones will never be forgotten," said President Barack Obama in his Presidential Proclamation for Gold Star Mother’s and Family’s Day 2014.
He added, "As we celebrate the memories of our troops who gave their last full measure of devotion, we renew our commitment to look after the loved ones they have left in our care."
"There are symbols that represent loss. There are symbols that represent strength. And there are symbols that represent both," said actor Gary Sinise in October at the Association of the United States Army’s Annual Meeting and Exposition at the Washington Convention Center.
He added, "Remember, respect and honor our fallen military heroes and the sacrifice and strength of our military families who wear the Gold Star pins."
Sinise serves as the celebrity voice of the Gold Star pins public service announcements, working to raise public awareness of Gold Star families by actively speaking to public audiences at every opportunity.
Sinise has made two public service announcements (PSA) titled "The Pin" and "The Pledge" in support of Gold Star families.
In addition to these two videos, "Unsung Heroes" is another Gold Star PSA that serves to educate the importance of the Gold Star pins.
All three of these Gold Star PSAs can be seen at www.GoldStarPins.org.
Last year’s Association of the United States Army’s Annual Meeting and Exposition only began to scratch the surface on educating our military family and the American public about the significance of the Gold Star pins.
While we scratched the surface, we still have a lot of work to do!
Today, many senior officials speaking at military functions recognize a long list of dignitaries that generally include the three components of the Army, senior officials, wounded warriors, retired military, veterans and family members.
In the past several years, hundreds of veteran-support, nonprofit organizations have come into existence to provide a wide variety of services and support to veterans that include everything from education, to job placement, to building homes, to weekend retreats and everything in between.
From a Gold Star family perspective, sitting on the outside looking in, you cannot help to feel excluded from the Army family or feel, perhaps, this Army family has forgotten those who made the ultimate sacrifice and their families who live each day with the emptiness in their hearts.
These patriotic Gold Star Americans are here with us. They want to stay connected on behalf of their loved one’s military service.
The Army’s Soldier for Life program is reaching out to Gold Star families.
The Soldier for Life program was initiated by Gen. Odierno to connect soldiers, veterans and families with communities and education, employment and healthcare resources.
On Dec. 13, the Army’s Installation Management Command (IMCOM) welcomed 20 Army and Navy Gold Star families to the 115th Army-Navy game played this year in Baltimore, Md.
The IMCOM commander, Lt. Gen. David Halverson, said, "Our survivors are so important to us because they know the price of freedom."
Adding, "It’s really important for them to know that they’re still in the Army."
For those of us who have never lost an immediate family member serving in the armed forces, meeting someone for the first time wearing a Gold Star or a Next of Kin Lapel Button can be uncomfortable.
"Recognition is the first part, and being able to converse with Gold Star Families about their loved one," said Maureen Miller, mother of Staff Sgt. Robert J. Miller, A Company, 3rd Battalion, 3rd Special Forces Group, who was killed in Operation Enduring Freedom on Jan. 25, 2008.
Recognizing one of these lapel pins immediately brings to mind a lot of questions which you may want to ask, but knowing the loss to the individual and the sensitivity of the moment, most people unfortunately do not ask or engage in a conversation about who the lapel button honors.
"I have found all too often that when I tell someone that I have a son who was killed in action, that stops the conversation," Miller noted.
She added, "Even if the other person is aware that my son had received the Medal of Honor, they simply say: ‘I’m sorry for your loss,’ and look for a way to change the topic of the conversation. There is no interest in hearing what posthumous recipients did to receive that honor."
"We are proud of our children, proud they volunteered to serve and proud to tell their story," said Jo Ann Maitland, mother of Spc. Richard Buckingham Hubbell III who was serving as an Apache Longbow Technician when he was killed in a traffic accident on Dec. 2, 2002.
Remember, the Gold Star and Next of Kin Lapel Buttons allow the family member to honor the life and service of their respective service member.
"Talking about our loved one allows us to talk about their lives and why they served," said Ami Neiberger-Miller, sister of Spc. Christopher Neiberger who was serving with the 1st Battalion, 18th Infantry Regiment, 1st Infantry Division, when he was killed in Iraq in 2007.
"I don’t want Christopher remembered because he died," Neiberger-Miller said, adding, "He was a person and his death was a result of how he lived his life."
These family members want to talk about their service member; his or her life, their desire to serve, their accomplishments and how they died.
A Gold Star family member would not wear a Gold Star pin if they did not want to talk about their loved one and tell their story.
While this may seem uncomfortable to someone who has never lost a family member serving in the military, those who wear these lapel pins are proud of the characterization of service their loved one held in their respective service.
Talking about a loved one allows them to fulfill the purpose of the Gold Star and Next of Kin Lapel Button, to recognize the service of their loved one by telling their story.
So how do you approach in a comfortable manner someone who wears a Gold Star pin?
"Go up and shake their hand, and say thank you," said Toni Gross, Gold Star Mother of Spc. Frank Gross who was serving in C Company, 2nd Squadron, 38th Cavalry Regiment, 504th Battlefield Surveillance Brigade, when he was killed in Afghanistan in 2011.
Maureen Miller says, ask: "Are you a Gold Star Family member?"
These humble gestures and questions generally open the door to begin a conversation which should include thanking this family member for a loved one’s service and sacrifice.
From there you can talk about their branch of service, units of assignment, deployment locations, military history, why they volunteered for military service and life at home.
"Don’t be afraid of a few tears," Miller said. "They might even be tears of joy if it’s the first time that someone has recognized the Gold Star pin."
Still Serving, Still Saluting!