What Gold Star Families Want You to Know

“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.

1LT Tom Martin
1LT Thomas M. Martin • KIA 14 October 2007

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.

It’s complicated.
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.

Last Family Photo with Tom, April 2007
Last Family Photo with Tom, April 2007

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:

66 thoughts on “What Gold Star Families Want You to Know

  1. Awesome job…God bless you and your family. And thank you for sharing your brother with us! Always remembered

    1. Thank you, Cyndy. Your kind words mean a lot.

  2. From a Gold Star Mother, well said. You put into words many of the thoughts and feelings I share.
    Thank you for sharing.

    Sgt Lance C Springer II
    KIA 23 March 2007

    1. Oh, Evanna. We are family. ❤️ Love to you.

  3. As always, well said, Sarah. I’m sharing this with my sisters and brothers of the Long Gray Line.

    1. Thank you, friend. ❤️ Thank you for being friends who know they’re family.

  4. Sarah,
    Though we have never met, I feel I know you in some small way as I have listened to your Mom talk about you. I am blessed to call your mom a friend. She and your dad are such amazing people. I have spent the past two years researching the AGSM with emphasis on its origins in WWI and the GSM Pilgrimage. I try to tell their story and always conclude with today’s AGSM and Tom’s story. I am passionate about the telling of their history as so many in our country have no idea who they are. Your article was excellent. I do hope to meet you one day. Oh, Colt is just tooooo cute. Blessings to you and your Gold Star Family.
    Hugs,
    Ocia (Osa) Jeffries
    Comfort, TX

    1. My parents are special people, that is certain. Thank you for the kind note — I hope to meet you one day, as well! If my Mom has anything to do with it, our paths will surely cross sooner than later — she is a professional dot-connector!

  5. Thank you Sarah!

    1. Thank you for reading, Jennifer. Best to you.

  6. So *incredibly* beautifully stated.

    I especially relate to “the hole in our lives is in the shape of a PERSON.”

    I know your parents here in San Antonio, and I’m sure they couldn’t be prouder of you.

    Cyndie Gibson
    Gold Star Wife
    Lt Col, USAF (Retired)
    Very Proud Army Brat

    1. Thank you, Cynthia, for the kind words. I’m a very proud Army brat myself – we Gold Star Army Brats need to stick together. Love to you.

  7. Thanks for writing. I served with Tom for a brief, but bright, impactful moment in Alaska and Iraq. For what it’s worth, as far as it depends on me and my family, his name, his life, and his sacrifice will never be forgotten. I wear his name on my wrist and tell his story as often as I’m allowed. God bless you, your family, and the rest of the Gold Star families who paid a sacrifice we will never know.

    Respectfully,
    Matthew Bate

    1. Matt, thank you for this. It didn’t take much more than a brief moment to be impacted by Tom’s 1-part goofball/1-part future General personality.

      Thank you for everything you’re doing to share his story. We are grateful for every touchpoint around the world — Tom’s story is alive because of friends and family like you. Thank you.

  8. I am a GS sister as well. We just celebrated 10 year J-Day 7/31. Thank you for sharing everything we feel as wel. God bless your family as well.

    Sgt Joshua A Ford
    189 TC NE Army National Guard
    OIF KIA 7-31-06

    Always Remembered-Never Forgotten

    1. Jessica, thank you for the kind words. I am so sorry for your loss. Anniversaries are hard and I’m sure this one was no different. Love to you.

  9. Don’t forget about the National Gold Star Family Registry! http://goldstarfamilyregistry.com/

    1. Great addition! Thank you!

  10. Gold Star family organizations from past wars, both non-profits represent the Gold Star children whose fathers were lost in these wars.

    Vietnam: Sons and Daughters In Touch
    Web: SDIT.org
    Facebook: Sons and Daughters In Touch

    WWII: American WWII Orphans Network
    Web: AWON.org

    1. These are terrific additions – thank you. I’m not familiar with these organizations, but will check them out. Thank you, Tony!

  11. Please do not forget to include – Gold Star Wives of America, Inc – when listing organizations whose members are part of the Gold Star Families. it seems, that we as wives, are often left off and out of the discussion.

    1. hugs.

    2. Oh, Karen – absolutely. Thank you.

  12. As a former Army medic, my sincere condolences on the loss of your brother. I have to say, what you wrote hit hard and close to home. I don’t know what it’s like being a Gold Star family member but I’ve met many since the day I enlisted. I won’t ever forget when I saw a Gold Star on a car of a parent at the food store. With my kids beside me, I thanked him for his sacrifice and loss in honor of our country. All he could do was stare, shake my hand and cry. To this day, I’m not sure how much saying that affected him. I’m glad someone is taking this stance though against the politics that people have gotten involved in.

    1. Keith, as a Gold Star dad, I can tell you it means a lot when someone says something to us.

    2. Keith, that man probably still remembers the kindness and respect you showed him that day. And if your kids were too young to remember – you should tell them the story and they will carry it with them.

  13. Thank you. I am a South Dakota Gold Star Mother, mother of SPC Dennis G. Jensen, who was killed 8/16/11, almost 5 years now. I am bringing our South Dakota Fallen Heroes Travelling Memorial to Gillette WY this week, and then back to Whitewood, South Dakota for the week of the Rally. If you like, I will give Tom a hug and a kiss for you. I give them all a hug every day when I am with them. Hugs to you and your Mom and Dad – I have printed this out, and will put this out for folks to read over the next week of two – if that is ok with you – hugs again Gold Star sister <3

    1. Thank you, Christine. My family is proud to be from South Dakota — and I appreciate what you’re doing to remember our SD fallen! Hugs to you ❤️

  14. Thank you so much! This GSM is so appreciative!

  15. I have mourned Tom when I heard he was KIA. Not sure if you remember me, but Tom and I dated while he attended West Point. He was such an amazing individual, always pushing everyone to be there best. Now I sit here reading Toms story again as a Gold Star Wife. Next Tuesday I will bury my husband, Geoffrey Burleson, at Arlington National Cemetry. My grief is intense and overwhelming! I too do not fit the mold, I am a combat veteran, we have young girls, we were totally in love and just beginning to see the benefits of working hard and loving life. Thank you for sharing your support. One thing I would add is that you do not lose your loved one the day they died, you loose them every morning you wake up without them there, every morning when my five year old asks for the same thing Daddy ate for breakfast. The fear of her not remembering their love and best friendship breaks my heart. Never Give Up! Never Forgotten!

    1. Celine certainly we remember you. You are in our thoughts and prayers as you move forward with your loss.

    2. Celine, I am so sorry to hear this. Love to you and yours.

    3. So sorry for your loss Celine…..you’re not alone. I’m glad you found our family again, but so incredibly sad the way you did. A big hug to you and those sweet little angels of yours.

  16. This is such a moving piece. Thank you so much, Sarah, for opening your heart and sharing your story. I have met your parents on multiple occasions over the past few years. In fact, I had lunch with your mom not too long ago. They are such wonderful people, and your family is one of my strongest inspirations.

    Per your blog request, I would also like to share the organization I work for, Soldiers’ Angels, and our Living Legends Team. The mission of LLT is to make sure the families of America’s fallen heroes know that they are supported and that their loved ones’ sacrifices are honored, respected and never forgotten.

    Website: http://soldiersangels.org/Living-Legends-Team.html

    Thank you again, Sarah. Please know that my thoughts and prayers are with your family always.

    Tammy Hudson
    Soldiers’ Angels
    Family Support Program Manager

    1. Thanks for your addition to the list! – and for your kind words. ❤️

  17. Beautifully said. May I ask permission to post this on our website with the appropriate attribution of course.Thanks,,,
    Mike

    1. Thank you, Mike. And yes, of course! My family and I are supporters of the Run for the Fallen in Arkansas — where I live and where Tom and I graduated high school. Please feel free to share this message as you wish.

      And if you are not already connected to the organizers of the Arkansas Run for the Fallen, I’d love to be able to make that connection.

      1. Thanks Sarah. I’m well connected with Bubba and Angela – Bubba actually started the NJ Run!!
        Sometimes it can be a very small world!!

        1. Oh my! I didn’t know that! Well, small world indeed. Angela teaches at the high school Tom and I attended!

          Thanks for your kind words, and your willingness to share my family’s story.

        2. It is sometimes a very small world and to make it even smaller, Tom (Sarah’s brother) and Dennis Zilinski along with their girlfriends shared some double dates at West Point.

          Two great men who died defending our freedom from two amazing families.

          We are both blessed to know a little of their story.

  18. Thank you for your eloquent, passionate & insightful words.
    You nailed it as only a Gold Star family member could; especially Memorial Day. ??
    Lisa Bixler
    Proud Gold Star Mother of
    PFC Evan Abraham Bixler
    KIA 24Dec06
    God gave us the best & continues to do so.

    1. Thank you Lisa. Your son’s KIA date breaks my heart. Love to you and yours. ❤️

  19. Thank You Sarah, this was a great writing about Gold Star Families…….I am a Gold Star Wife of Sgt. Harrison E. “Bud” Seward ………my grandmother was a WWII Gold Star Mom of a POW who died in a Japanese POW Camp, most all of the men in my family have served in the military of the United States during wartime & peacetime…….I am so very proud of every one of them……..I also have the 1st Gold Star license tag for my county on my car……

    1. Gail, I so appreciate your family — those who served and those who supported the ones who served. Because let’s be honest, when one family member serves — we are all with them. ❤️

  20. Hello sarahmartinhood,
    I have just read your above words & I am in awe as I do believe that my daughter, Beverly Wolfer-Nerenberg could have written these words.

    We became a Gold Star Family April 6, 2008, when our son, Major Stuart Adam Wolfer was KIA, The Green Zone, Baghdad, Iraq and our lives have been changed forever. Not a day goes by that there are NOT thoughts or words about Stuart that are shared with Len (Stuart’s Father) and with Beverly.

    Our family has established a 501 c(3) organization, The Major Stuart Adam Wolfer Institute–IMO Stuart & IHO our Troops & Veterans. I am requesting that our organization be included in your above list for others to see how another Gold Star Family is sharing Stuart’s Legacy–his name is said daily & lives on,while we continue to support Our Troops & Veterans.

    Contact for Beverly Wolfer-Nerenberg
    beverly@msawi.org

    We also, would like to share your words with others,
    Esther, Len & Beverly

    1. Thank you for the kind words, Esther. I’m so sorry for the loss of your Stuart. Thank you for the addition of The Major Stuart Adam Wolfer Institute. Love to you and yours. ❤️

  21. Thank you , Sarah. You have eloquently put in words so much I, a Gold Star mom, have wanted to share.”we all have to be ready for innocent small talk”, is definitely a part of the grief journey. For me it is “do you have children?” My son was an only child. So, I did, but now I don’t. But I so want to talk about him. “We want you to know it’s OK to have fun on Memorial Day, but approach it with reverence — not revelry.” So true! I want folks to enjoy the beginning of summer but please acknowledge the reason for the holiday. “We are terrified the world will forget them.” I am so afraid my granddaughters and their future children will not remember the wonderful person that was their father and he will be lost to his grandchildren. Thank you for using your talent to say what so many of us would like to share.

    1. Chrystel, a dear friend of mine who lost her only daughter to suicide many years ago once pointed out to me the English language has no word for a parent who has lost a child. We have orphan and widow(er) — but we literally don’t have a term for something so unbearable as a parent after losing a child. I can’t imagine how you feel every time you get asked an otherwise innocent question — and I’m so sorry. I hope you are finding your way to tell your son’s story — and I promise his children and grandchildren will have no greater hero. I was pregnant with my son when my brother Tom was killed. My son is now 8 years old and loves nothing more than hearing stories of Uncle Tom. I have vowed to never run out of stories for him. Love to you. ❤️

  22. Thank You, well said and every word resonates with the way I feel at different times. I am a Vietnam Gold Star Sister, and I have never let my brother be forgotten, some say to stop, you should be over his death by now. I say how do you know? I will never get over his death, and I never want for him to be forgotten. I cry when his birthday comes around, I cry at Christmas when I can’t give him a present, I cry at Easter, we use to hunt easter eggs together when we were little, I cry on the anniversary of his death, I cry almost every day, even after all of the years.
    Only another Gold Star Family could understand that I want to mention my brother’s name here.
    Cpl. Thomas Steven Hickman KIA 8/26/1970- Killed 6 days after his 19th Birthday.
    God Bless All Gold Star Families we are in this together. And I wish nobody to be a Gold Star Family And nobody speaks for me , as a Gold Star Sister, except me.

    1. Oh, Karen. Never stop saying his name. My brother has been gone almost 9 years and I already miss him differently today than I did in the beginning. I wrote this on the 8th anniversary of his death:

      “This week I was sharing with a friend that I realized I’ve been grieving Tom in a whole new way. He died at 27 years old. I was a few days shy of 25. In 8 years, I’ve surpassed his 27 years, become a mom, and started navigating my own career and grown-up relationships. And he’s still 27. And he’s not here for any of it. He’s not here to be my grown-up sibling/friend, and he’s not here to offer a grin and a poke in the ribs when the adulting closes in — and he’s not here to find the nonsense in mundane things like clearing the dinner table. I can’t help but think our 30s might be a really, really good time, and I’m desperate to know what our grown-up relationship would be like. I didn’t just lose my 27-year-old big brother. I lost my 30-year-old big brother and my 35-year-old big brother and my 40-year-old big brother.”

      I’m sad when I think of memories of our childhood, but I’m a different kind of sad when I think of the relationship we would/could/should be having today. Never stop saying his name, Karen. Love to you. ❤️

  23. Sarah.
    This is so well said because it was so heartfelt. Thank you for putting this into words all can relate to. I’m going to forward it to your grandpa Martin’s last surviving cousin, Mary Sikorsky over in Oregon. She lost her older brother in WWII. She’s now about 95 or so; but I know she’ll be able to understand and will deeply appreciate what you wrote.
    Your uncle Brian

    1. Thanks, Uncle Brian. I have heard from several Gold Stars from past wars and conflicts — and my heart goes out to them. I can’t wrap my head around the relationship I will have with Tom’s memory 50 years from now. One day at a time. ❤️

  24. Ms. Hood,
    I am a GS Brother, Vietnam 1967 was when my brother Greggy “was KIA, I was 8. You have captured this so well, and I am so sorry for you, and your families loss….You never know what will trigger your emotions and even after almost 5 decades those wounds are still raw My Greg is worth a good cry still..always will be and I am proud to do so!…God Bless you, your Brother Tom, and your family, you all are in my thoughts and prayers.

    1. Thank you for this, Dean. I know my relationship with Tom’s memory will change over time, but I know I will miss my brother my whole life. Thank you for telling Greg’s story — all these years later.

  25. Thank you. You’ve something important and needed here!

    1. Thank you, sir. I appreciate the kind words.

  26. I so feel the love for and the loss of your brother in this piece. Beautfully written. Thanks for the reminder to me of the service and ultimate sacrifice our fallen military men.
    From a friend of Lynn Hood in Atlanta.

    1. Thank you, Carol. Lynn and her family are so special to us.

  27. Sarah, after reading your article, while we never had the privilege of meeting your brother Tom, now we will always remember his name and know what he did for each of us. Thanks you for your beautiful story and helping us understand how to help each GS family navigate through difficult times in some small way. Blessings to your family!

    1. Thank you for the kind words, Martha.

  28. Beautiful words Sarah — beautiful words. Thank you.

    1. Thanks so much, Ron. Truly.

  29. Amazing words I will make sure to share this. Crusader 1-3

  30. Ms. Hood,

    While I did not know your brother, I did serve in OIF with I MEF in 2006-07. Harrowing times for sure and I was honored to work along side so many young men and women, like Tom, whose daily example and actions were inspiring. Equally inspiring is your story and the voice you’ve given to many Gold Star Families.

    Fast forward to this past Memorial Day where I was asked to speak at our towns commemoration. I was determined to ensure my audience understood the sacrifices born by our Gold Star families. Admittedly, I struggled to find the right words, that is until I came across yours and Tom’s story. I spoke of you and Tom, and the need to keep telling their stories so we don’t forget about Tom and the many others like him. The need to approach Gold Star Families “… with raw compassion and genuine humility. Shake their hands, hug their necks, listen to their stories…”. Judging by the audiences reaction, mission accomplished!

    Thank you for sharing yours and Tom’s story and the privilege / honor of sharing it with others.

    Semper Fidelis,

    Col Konstantine Zoganas
    USMCR (Ret)

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