Last Thursday, bags packed and loaded in the car, Isaura and I began our short trek to Marines’ Memorial Club and Hotel in San Francisco, located at 609 Sutter Street (at Mason). It is a private social club for United States Marines and other veterans of the United States Armed Forces. The nonprofit Marines’ Memorial Association owns the large building in the Union Square neighborhood that houses a hotel, theater, restaurant/bar, sports club, special event facilities, library, museum, memorial, and a military history bookstore. The president and CEO is Major General Mike Myatt, USMC (Retired).
Recognizing the need for Gold Star families to come together, the Blue Star Moms in California took it upon themselves to reach out to these folks who have lost a loved one serving in the military. The toll in blood from Iraq and Afghanistan has brought many would-be strangers together who grieve over a child or spouse who was forcibly, and usually violently, taken from them. These families are no stranger to the depths of sorrow life sometimes brings. Yet, they come together once a year for two days to shut out the rest of the world. In a disarming way they look into each other’s eyes and enter into a very sacred place where each is safe with the other because of their shared pain and loss.
The script for these annual gatherings of Gold Star families is the same. Those of us who are there to assist in the event, such as counselors, coordinators, administrators, and the like, are privileged to briefly share the burden with these families.
The first evening begins with a social time followed by dinner together. This year one of the couples seated at our table was there for the first time. Their son, an Army medic, was killed in Afghanistan in 2012. We talked about this middle son of theirs and his love of country, and how much he loved his fellow soldiers. He was initially assigned to a safer location when he arrived in Afghanistan. But he believed he needed to be with the guys who might need him most – the guys taking the fight to the enemy. He laid down his life for his friends. I mentioned to the parents that many of the men their son had patched up in the midst of battle are alive today because he was there.
On Friday morning we begin with a memorial service honoring those who have fallen. This is perhaps the most difficult time for the families because it brings to the forefront, one more time, the reality of their loss. Held in the theater, folks slowly gather, greeted by a dozen or so Marines in their dress blues, there to honor these families. Before the program begins, harpist Laura Simpson plays quietly while folks find their seats. On the stage are tiered rows of votive candles with an embossed name card for each of the 96 fallen service members. A white rose is placed in a vase beside each candle by the family. General Myatt is the emcee for this event. After the presentation of the colors, the national anthem, and the invocation, the solemnity of the occasion changes as the fallen are remembered. In alphabetical order, each name is read aloud by General Myatt, stating their rank and branch of service. The family members who are present stand as their loved one is mentioned. The chaplain then leads the rest of us invoking this sobering phrase, “A grateful nation acknowledges your sacrifice and prays for your peace.”
Opera singer Erich Stratmann has been our featured soloist in this service. His rich baritone voice fills the theater with his rendition of “The Lord’s Prayer.” Following this is the presentation of the Gold Star flag to the newest members of this club that no one would ever want to join. This year, Mrs. Karen Kelly, wife of General John F. Kelly, USMC, presented the flag to each new family. She and her husband are themselves members of this club of Gold Star families, having lost their son, Lieutenant Robert Michael Kelly, USMC in Afghanistan, November 9, 2010.
On Friday evening for our closing event, a banquet is held in the formal dining room. The guest speaker this year, as in 2012, was General John F. Kelly, Commander, Southern Command. I can assure you that when this man speaks to these Gold Star families there is a connection, a bond shared that transcends all other communication, because the Kelly’s know from firsthand experience. So when Gold Star dad John Kelly speaks about losing his son, you could hear a pin drop in that vast room filled with a couple hundred people.
To top off the evening, the Party Band of the First Marine Division from Camp Pendleton, comes in and really gets rocking. They have a repertoire of Dixieland and New Orleans jazz that gets the joint jumping.
As we part, we all look forward to next year’s gathering. This is particularly true of the Gold Star families who will once again be able to enter that safe zone with others who have shared in grief and loss.
Thank you, Blue Star Moms! You’re the best!