As a kid I loved a sticker chart! Getting a gold star was the goal. “You grow girl” stickers with a flower on it would have made my heart soar. The feeling of accomplishment as those stickers filled in the spaces, whether it be for attendance, memorization, or something else, made me feel so accomplished. Give me all of those gold stars!!!! As an adult I got a gold star I didn’t want. I didn’t know there was a gold star that wasn’t shiny & positive. I didn’t know that a gold star could carry the weight of grief instead of accomplishment. I didn’t know that families of deceased military personnel had an identifier. But we do. Gold Star Family.
I know that now. SSGT Stephen New, my brother, passed away in Afghanistan on July 28, 2013. On that date, I got the gold star I never wanted. Gold Star Family.
I didn’t grow up in a military family. We always respected flag, celebrated our country, and honored those who served, but it was always more passive in my mind. I didn’t, and still don’t, know the rankings of military personnel. I cannot hold my own when it comes to military terms. I didn’t have any friends as a young child who had parents deployed. I remember in middle school having one friend who had his dad deployed; but it seemed so foreign and abstract that it was hard for me to grasp. I couldn’t have told you how a person killed overseas makes it back home for a funeral. ( I know now.) Memorial Day weekend meant annoying car and furniture commercials, a holiday where everything closed, and a patriotic song and slideshow at church. More abstract, passive observations. That’s not a bad thing; I’m just letting you know where I came from.
Now, 5, almost 6, years later, Memorial Day is a chance to spend a day with family and friends. It’s a slideshow and patriotic segment at church. But it is also a weekend that is heavy - weighted down with a sense of grief that can’t be ignored. It’s similar to when there’s someone across the room that you know wants to talk to you, but you’re trying to avoid them at all costs. This weekend I think not only of my loss and my grief; I think of Stephen’s friends who grieve the loss. I think of my parents who grieve over his absence. I think of the other families who carry a similar load of grief as mine. I think of the history of military men and women laying down their lives in selflessness for people they didn’t know. And I reflect on the picture that is of a much higher sacrificial love - the love that Jesus showed when he laid down his life for my sins and provided me freedom!
Memorial Day is a special day to honor those who have died while serving their country. It is not a day to honor veterans or those actively serving. There are other days for that. Memorial Day does impact veterans and active military though. Many of these men and women have lost a friend, or more to combat. It’s a day of grief and remembrance. Many churches will do a special patriotic number with a slideshow or video paying some sort of homage to the sacrifices of these men and women the day before Memorial Day. Far fewer churches will actually share the stories of Gold Star Families in their own congregation.
I think part of that is because it’s hard to find us sometimes. After all, our gold star isn’t something we proudly display. It’s one we hold close to our heart. However, I think it’s also that we tend to take a more abstract and passive approach. We don’t want to upset someone by asking them sensitive questions. We want to respect their grief. It’s easier to celebrate the unofficial start of summer when we aren’t affiliating the weekend with the loss of a particular person. But in this passive approach, we are doing ourselves a disservice. We need to know the stories. We need to be reminded that their is price that is paid for our nations liberty. We need to view these Gold Star Families as if they are gold stars on a chart - a chart that serves two purposes. First, it celebrates another year of democracy, religious freedom, freedom to disagree publicly on a variety of issues, and the opportunity to even be concerned with #firstworldproblems. Second, it honors each and every man and woman who looked evil in the face, stepped in front of a friend, and exhibited more courage in an instant than I will probably have in a lifetime.
As Memorial Day comes, acknowledge this gold star that no one wants. Visit a cemetery and as you see the graves of soldiers, pray for the families and friends who grieve the loss of that woman or man. Do a quick google search to look up the names of those who have died in the past year from your city or state. Pray for them, send a card to the family if possible, and take a moment to express gratitude to the Lord for their bravery. Pray for the men and women who are veterans or still serving who daily struggle with the question of “why them and not me?” Look for those of us with the gold star no one wants. It takes a little effort, but we’re there. Ask us questions about who they were, how they died, & what we miss most. I’m happy to answer them! Not everyone will want to share just yet, but we’ll always be grateful you asked.
Do you have a friend who passed away in combat? Are you a Gold Star Family? I’d love to hear from you! Do you have a way you celebrate and honor those who died during Memorial Day Weekend? Let me know in the comments below.