I have a friend who is a Gold Star mother whose son did not die on the battlefield. He died at home, but not from injuries sustained in battle either. He was 22 years old when he died from a rare cancer.
At barely 20 years old, while active duty, he got sick. He was immediately diagnosed with an advanced, very rare and very aggressive cancer. This was shocking not only because he was so young and otherwise healthy but also because there is no cancer of any sort in his family.
He was a true warrior, and did not want to leave his unit and finally agreed to return to the States for treatment only because he was ordered to by his superiors. Initially, the news was encouraging as he seemed to beat back the cancer with extreme radiation and chemotherapy. However, the news soon turned grim when it was discovered that less than six months after this cancer was in remission, he was diagnosed with a second, unrelated and even more rare and aggressive cancer. From the day he was initially diagnosed until the day he died a mere 16 months passed. His family and thousands of others believe his cancer was caused by exposure to the toxic fumes emitted by the burn pits in Afghanistan and Iraq.
I am friends with another family who has also lost their son. Their son endured six tours of duty to Iraq and Afghanistan and was wounded twice. But their relief and joy at his final return home and retirement from his military career was short lived. Within days, they could see how he struggled to adapt to civilian life, in a world that no longer made sense to him. He was consumed with guilt for having lived when so many of his friends, many of whom were barely more than boys, died; worse, he felt a level of responsibility as he was their commander. Sadly, he chose to end his own life, leaving behind parents, a brother and a wife.
I know another mother whose worst fears came true when her son was shot in the head. It was something that wasn’t supposed to be able to happen, something the military swears had never happened before on that base. This wasn’t an instance of friendly fire; it was a freak occurrence while at the firing range at basic training. Her statement that she didn’t think she needed to worry until he deployed is one of the most heartbreaking expressions of grief I’ve ever heard.
All of these tragedies are compounded by the military’s denial of their status as Gold Star Mothers. According to the Department of Defense, only the families of those who die in combat and in a theater of war are considered Gold Stars. This means that the support, understanding and acceptance afforded the families of those killed in action are withheld from these "other" deaths. While anyone who dies while active duty knows their family will receive "Next of Kin" recognition, many are surprised that so few are accorded the honor of being called a Gold Star.
Thankfully, the American Gold Star Mothers, Inc., which was officially organized in in 1928, looks at things differently. Their criteria for membership is simply being a mother who has lost their child due to service in the United States of America Armed Forces. Accordingly, the Gold Star Wives and the newly formed Gold Star Dads have adopted this simple prerequisite as their qualification for membership. These groups make the unspeakable tragedy of losing a loved one just a little more bearable, particularly for those who have been denied official recognition by the Department of Defense.
This weekend, on the last Sunday of September as has happened every year since 1936, the president of the United States, by proclamation, requests observance of National Gold Star Mothers Day. On this one day, all Americans are asked to pause in recognition of the loss of these mothers, though the idea behind the Gold Star is to recognize the honor and glory accorded the person for their supreme sacrifice, the last full measure of devotion and the pride of the family in this sacrifice rather than focusing on their individual grief.
It seems appropriate to set aside a day in recognition of these women who even in their grief are more concerned with honoring and recognizing the sacrifice of their loved ones, regardless of how they lost their life in service to this nation.