My intention in writing this article is to share a recent experience with you that was like no other I’ve ever known. Several months ago I was invited to participate as a counselor at the annual Gold Star Parents conference in San Francisco, January 31 to February 1. The venue was the Marines' Memorial Club, an historic twelve-story building in the “City by the Bay.”
Gold Star Parents are those who have had a family member killed while serving in the military during times of war. This gathering was for California Gold Star Parents, hosted by the California Blue Star Moms. The Blue Star Moms are those who have a family member currently serving in the military.
The history of Blue and Gold Star Parents originated in the United States during World War I. It began with families with loved ones serving in the war coming up with some means of acknowledging their service to the country. Parents would hang a pennant with a blue star on a white background in the front window of their homes so those passing by could see the sacrifice made by this family. President Woodrow Wilson liked the idea, so he proposed that the blue star be replaced with a gold star upon notification of the death of a family’s loved one. The tradition continues to this day.
The Gold Star Parents in attendance were encouraged to bring pictures and other memorabilia of their sons for display on various tables. There were eighty-three Gold Star Parents in attendance for these two days. It was humbling to walk around the display tables where you could see the faces of the young men whose lives were lost in Afghanistan and Iraq. It was one more reminder that there are brave Americans fighting an enemy that wants you and me dead. My wife, Isaura, and I stopped and spoke with many of the parents, listening as they shared their love for their fallen heroes. Later we sat with several more families over dinner, amazed at the resilience of these families. We heard the stories of several families who lost an only son. There was one family that lost both their sons two years apart. Both were Marines, serving proudly the country they loved.
The next morning there was a Memorial Service which was one of the most moving ceremonies I have ever witnessed. Major General J. Michael Myatt, USMC (Retired) was the emcee. Each Gold Star family present was asked to stand to hear the name of their son read, with accompanying photos on the large screen. As the name was read and words of thanks offered by the general, a Marine in dress blues quietly lit a candle in memory of the fallen warrior. Eighty-seven candles were stretched across the front of the stage, representing each military service branch. It was an awesome sight when the last candle was lit and the last name was read. A National Guard chaplain gave the closing prayer, followed by the solemn playing of taps.
After lunch, the Gold Star Parents were invited to break into small groups where they could share their experiences with each other. Each group was led by a couple who were also Gold Star Parents. One of those families was the aforementioned National Guard chaplain. As a counselor I was simply to be available should any of the parents need to talk privately. I, and my fellow counselors, moved wraith-like in the perimeters of the various groups.
That evening we had a closing banquet. It was my honor to be asked to offer the invocation. The Guest of Honor was General James N. Mattis, USMC, currently the Commander, U.S. Forces Command/North Atlantic Treaty Organization Supreme Allied Commander Transformation. Previously, at the outset of the war in Iraq, General Mattis was the Commanding General of the First Marine Division, which means a number of the Marines and sailors who were memorialized this night had served under his command. The general gave a wonderful address and greatly encouraged the Gold Star Parents, thanking them for their sons and the sacrifice that was made in defense of our nation. In watching the general express his thoughts and feelings, it was obvious that the loss of even one Marine or sailor under his command was too many.
The vast majority of Americans will get up tomorrow morning, have breakfast before heading out the door to work or school, and then return that evening to the warmth and comfort of their families. The War on Terrorism for them is a news blurb on CNN. Not so for the Gold Star Parents. Every day they are reminded of the high cost of freedom. It has always been, and will always be paid for with the blood of patriots.
Please, take time right now to offer a prayer of thanks for these fallen warriors and their families. And be sure to thank God for the privilege of living in the greatest country in the world.