The legacy of a fallen service member is the memory of a grateful nation. We set aside Memorial Day to honor all those who have made the ultimate sacrifice, but what comes next? After that knock on the door, after TAPS is played and the folded flag is delivered, how can we pay tribute to the families of the fallen?
The term “Gold Star” is a modern reference that comes from the Service Flags or banners that were first used during World War I, but became more popular during World War II. For many, these service flags or banners are symbols of love and patriotic pride that families feel for their sons, daughters, husbands, wives, fathers and mothers who serve in the military during wartime. Traditionally, these hung in the windows of private homes, as a tribute to those in service. The design of the flag included a blue star for every immediate family member serving in the armed forces during any period of war. If that loved one was killed in action, the blue star was covered with a gold star. This allowed members of the community to realize the loss suffered by local families. It is common today to see Gold Star family members wearing Gold Star pins – a symbolic badge that nobody wants, but proudly accepts as a way to honor those loved ones who gave their last full measure of devotion. This representation is worn to demonstrate the family’s pride in this sacrifice rather than the sense of personal loss which would be represented by traditional mourning attire.
In the latter part of 2016, Public Law 114-246 – better known as the Gold Star Family Voices Act-amended the Veterans History Project legislation to expand the collecting scope to include oral histories from “immediate family members of the Armed Forces who became missing in action or who died as a result of their wartime service.”
This vital modification now allows for families of the fallen to act as the mouthpiece for their lost loved ones. For interviewers, it offers the gift of getting to know more the deceased service member through their family’s eyes, as more than just a name. For the families, it allows their loved one’s name and story to be preserved in our nation’s library so that future generations will come to know their heroic acts and tremendous sacrifice.
In the Japanese art of Kintsugi, one takes something seemingly broken and puts it back together using golden lacquer. These “scars” create a beautiful and unique piece, in which the history of the break remains, and yet creates something beautiful for light to shine through. Grief, as the other side of love, helps to shape these individuals creating a driving force to continue the mission for their loved one. Romeo Vela loved his wife’s infectious smile and infatuation with Air Force One. Having joined the Air Force right out of high school, Marcia Joseph dreamed of taking to the skies one day. Her passion for service to others inspired her husband to husband to enlist in the U.S. Army. A few years after Joseph passed away, Vela decided he would keep her dream and alive and he started taking private pilot lessons.
Claudiah Billiot celebrates her sister at every event she can with other families of the fallen. Out of admiration of her sister, Marisol Heredia enlisted in the Army after high school. As a member of the Army’s 15th Brigade Support Battalion, 1st Calvary Division, she deployed to Iraq where she served as a petroleum supply specialist. She enjoyed her adventures and was looking forward to marrying her fiancé and starting a family. Sadly, Heredia became the first casualty of the Iraq War from the San Gabriel Valley on September 7, 2007 when she passed away as a result of complications from burns suffered while refueling a generator. A fighter until the end, Heredia battled her injuries for two months at Brooks Army Medical Center, with her sister by her side. In an effort to make sure Heredia’s legacy lives on, Billiot named her daughter “Marisol” and later worked with her local congresswoman to have a special Act of Congress rename the local post office in her home town the “Specialist Marisol Heredia Post Office of El Monte.”
Monica McNeil carries her son everywhere she goes. A Gaelic tattoo that means “Fearless or no Fear” covers her wrist just as it had covered her son’s heart. As a fourth generation Marine, there was no question as to what Eric wanted to do with his life. Wanting to start as an infantryman so he would know the experiences of the enlisted ranks, Eric had aspirations of being a career officer in the Marines. While serving as a machine-gunner, Lance Corporal Ward was killed on February 21, 2010 by an improvised explosive device (IED) during an offensive in southern Afghanistan. His mother now channels her energy into following her son’s example through service. Monica McNeil advocates for veterans, educates others about who Gold Star families are, and works with a variety of organizations to pay tribute to all fallen service members. During her Veterans History Project interview, Monica stated: “As a parent you don’t want anyone to ever forget…We honor him and have fun with his memories. We are just so thankful for his 19 years.”
Although not on a traditional calendar, the last Sunday in September is observed as Gold Star Mother and Family Day. The Library of Congress Veterans History Project (VHP) will commemorate the day with a panel of renowned experts who will discuss how families and organizations honor and preserve the legacy of the United States military members who died as a result of their service. We invite you to join us on Tuesday, September 25th at 1PM in the Whittall Pavilion of the Library of Congress. The event is free and open to the public, but an RSVP is required. Feel free to reach out to us at [email protected] with the Subject: “Gold Star Panel” for reservations or further information.