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The Legacy of Fallen Service Members and the Kinsugi Gold Stars They Leave Behind

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?

Banner/Flag with red border, white rectangle with one Gold Star and two blue stars

Window Service Banner, 1942-1944. Clare Marie Morrison Crane Collection,Veterans History Project, AFV2001/001/01754.

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.”

Screenshot image from oral history interview of man in red shirt pointing to picture botton

Romeo Vela points to a photo of his late wife, Marcia Ruth Joseph, that he wears as a button (detail from oral history interview). Marcia Ruth Joseph Collection. Veterans History Project, Library of Congress, AFC2001/001/111413.

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.

 

 

Photo of young girl standing by decorated tombstone.

Marisol Billiot poses with her aunt, Marisol Heredia’s grave. Photograph provided by Claudiah Billiot.

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.”

 

 

Portrait of man smiling says: LCPL Eric Levi Ward - August 17, 1990-February 21, 2010

LCPL Eric Levi Ward. Photo provided by Monica McNeil.

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.

 

3 Comments

  1. Ellen Cloyed
    September 30, 2018 at 11:08 am

    Our son-in-law, 1st Lt. Todd W. Weaver was KIA in Kandahar on 9/9/10 while leading a night assault on an insurgent position. His parents have graciously shared their gold star pins with us, and we display a stained glass gold star panel in the window at the entrance to our home. We think about him every day, miss him, and mourn his loss, yet as in-laws we have no right to the gold star. It troubles me that there is no official recognition of the grief in-laws experience following a combat death. Yet that grief is deep, abiding, and transformative. Our lives are forever changed because an IED exploded in a pomegranate orchard one night eight years ago this month. Until in-laws are viewed as bereaved family members, we bear the pain of this promising young officer’s death in private.

  2. Kerry Ward
    October 3, 2018 at 2:32 pm

    Hi Mrs. Cloyed,

    Thank you for reading and sharing about 1LT Todd Weaver. We would love the opportunity to learn more about your son-in-law and encourage you and other family members to share 1LT Weaver’s story with Veterans History Project. It would be a true honor to count 1LT Weaver’s story as part of the permanent collection at the Library of Congress and a wonderful way to allow future generations to be inspired by his(and your family’s) selfless sacrifices. Please email us at [email protected] for further information on how you can preserve 1LT Weaver’s legacy with the Library.

    Kindly,

    Kerry

  3. Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors
    October 3, 2018 at 3:40 pm

    Hi Mrs. Cloyed,
    Thank you for sharing your son-in-law’s story. I encourage you to reach out to the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS). TAPS is committed to providing compassionate care to anyone who is grieving the death of someone who served in the military, regardless of circumstance of death, relationship to the deceased, or geography. We are available 24 hours a day, seven days a week through our National Military Survivor Helpline, 800-959-TAPS(8277). TAPS holds seminars, retreats, family camps, and other events where survivors are able to connect in a safe and healing environment to share their stories, learn from one another, and gain valuable coping skills. To learn more about TAPS, please call or visit our website http://www.taps.org. We would be honored to welcome you into the TAPS Family and honor the memory of 1st Lt. Todd Weaver.

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