“You can’t do it wrong.”
I have said those words many times. I have said them to people I just met, and I’ve said them to myself in the mirror.
“You can’t do it wrong.”
It has been my way of reassuring myself and others that if your heart’s in the right place, you shouldn’t worry about saying or doing the wrong thing — your intentions will speak for themselves.
If you know me or my family, you know about Tom. My brother Tom was killed in Iraq on October 14, 2007 — four days after his 27th birthday. That day, we became a Gold Star Family.
A Gold Star Family is a family who has lost a family member in service to our country. There have been nearly 7000 US casualties — just since 9/11. That’s a lot of Gold Star Families. Awareness of GS Families is low but growing, and with families of the fallen appearing in the mainstream media from major films like American Sniper to more recently speaking onstage during both major political party conventions, I’ve been seeing the term “Gold Star Family” in the news more than ever.
Since familiarity with Gold Star Families is inconsistent and you may have wondered yourself whether you’re “doing it wrong,” I want to share a few things from the heart of this Gold Star Sibling. Whether it’s an election year or we’re at war or it’s just a Tuesday — these are things Gold Star Families wish you knew.
Nearly 7000 times since 9/11, the country – the military – lost a soldier, an airman, a marine. But families lost a son, a daughter, a father, a sister, a husband. And those two worlds can be incredibly hard to reconcile. Gold Star Families are proud of the ranks, the service, the decorations — but the hole in our lives is in the shape of a PERSON.
Time passes and we have to carry on in our new normal. Widows get remarried and families evolve, parents have to decide whether to hang that Christmas stocking on the mantle this year and traditions change, we all have to be ready for innocent small talk, “so tell me about your family…” My brother Tom now has two nephews he’ll never meet, who are growing up hearing stories of their Uncle Tom and asking hard questions for which there are no answers. My husband and I had been married only a year when Tom died, and the complexity of our family dynamic is now his normal, too. None of these things are black and white, none of them are easy, and none of them come with instructions.
We want you to know that when you talk about “the troops” you’re talking about our family. And that our family is forever changed. And we need patience and time to figure things out.
Talking about it is HARD.
Hell, thinking about it is hard. Whether the audience is one close friend, a room full of people, or millions across the world — finding the words and the strength to say them can be remarkably difficult. Sometimes we will have powerful, inspired words and sometimes all we can manage is tearful, heavy silence. It is often a blend of fierce pride and profound sadness that is impossible to articulate.
I’m a writer so I tend to default to this medium, but I’ve been given the chance to use my voice several times over the years. And it’s always been harder than I anticipated. But the chance to share your story is worth everything. If you have Gold Star Family members in your life — offer them platforms big and small. Offer them a quiet shoulder to rant and cry on, and a microphone when (and if) they’re ready — they will need both.
We want you to know we may struggle for the words, but we need listeners and we need empathy.
We do not fit a mold.
My family is a Gold Star Family AND a military family. My parents are both retired from the Army and my brother Tom planned to spend his career in the service. I grew up within the context of the military, and after Tom was killed my family founded a non-profit to support the people, places, and causes important to Tom. But many GS Families don’t look like us. There are GS Families that were otherwise unfamiliar with the military or even hesitant of their loved one’s enlistment. There are Gold Star Families who distance themselves from the military community because it causes pain or confusion or stress.
Some of us will become active and vocal, establishing foundations and joining groups like American Gold Star Mothers. Others will not need or want that kind of fellowship or that level of formality and will remain more private. The intensity of our grief and the impact of our loss is not reflected in our level of participation in these organizations.
We want you to know you shouldn’t make assumptions about us based on how we grieve, and we need your unconditional support.
We don’t like it when you say “Happy Memorial Day!”
There’s a difference between Veterans Day and Memorial Day. Veterans Day celebrates the service of all US military veterans while Memorial Day honors those who died while in military service. It may seem a trivial difference to many, but it is a critical difference to Gold Star Families.
While it’s important that the fallen are remembered by family and friends – it’s also important they are remembered by their country. Even when the war isn’t in daily headlines and even in peacetime, Memorial Day comes every year, and it’s one of the most important days Americans could possibly observe. Memorial Day is one collective KIA date for all of us to honor — not just Gold Star Families but AMERICANS.
You may have heard people give each other grief about Memorial Day – that it isn’t about BBQ or the lake or a day off, and certainly it isn’t purely about those things. It’s about freedom, and remembering the price paid for that freedom. So enjoy the BBQ, the lake, the day off – the freedom. But use your words and actions to honor the price paid for that freedom, too.
We want you to know it’s OK to have fun on Memorial Day, but approach it with reverence — not revelry.
We are terrified the world will forget them.
They say everyone dies twice. Once when you stop breathing, and again the last time someone says your name. For Gold Star Families, this is our worst nightmare. We’ve already lost our soldiers, our heroes, our loved ones to death — once. We know we have a job to do and stories to tell, to be sure our heroes don’t die twice. We say their names, we tell their stories, we wear t-shirts and establish scholarships and run races — all because we can’t bear to think of them fading away. As long as we keep saying their names, they’re never truly gone.
We don’t just want you to remember their Purple Heart or their KIA date, we want you to remember they laughed and loved and LIVED. Their deaths are not their legacy.
We want you to know it’s OK to say their names. Let’s laugh and cry and tell stories together. We never get tired of that.
No one wants to be in this club, and it’s a hard thing when what connects you to other people is the worst day of your lives. We don’t want your pity, we want your empathy. Our fallen heroes don’t want your politics, they want your gratitude.
I want to challenge the world to check your politics at the door when it comes to Gold Star Families. Approach them with raw compassion and genuine humility. Shake their hands, hug their necks, listen to their stories. You can’t do it wrong.
I have met dozens of Gold Star Family members over the years, and have my own experience on which to reflect — but I do not speak for all Gold Star Families in any official or unofficial capacity. If you have comments, questions, or builds on what I’ve shared here — my door is open and my inbox is available.
Additionally, if you’d like to learn more about Gold Star Families or support the work being done to support the families and legacies of the fallen, here are a few links: