[caption id=“attachment_14260” align=“aligncenter” width=“750”]A 2012 Gold Star Mothers Day display at Fort Jackson, South Carolina. DOD photo A 2012 Gold Star Mothers Day display at Fort Jackson, South Carolina. DOD photo[/caption]

After 14 years of war, the bonds of America’s military community have been strengthened by the tempered hearts of a group of mostly civilians: Gold Star Mothers.

These mothers, along with the rest of the surviving families of service members who’ve died, often find strength in their military support network. They stay connected through organizations like the USO and TAPS, which help these families through their worst days.

“The gold stars are very small symbols and very subdued symbols in our society,” said Donna Engeman, a Gold Star Spouse and manager of the Army’s Installation Management Command (IMCOM) survivor outreach services program. “Outside the survivor community, there are not a whole lot of people who know what Gold Star means. But these symbols are so huge to the survivor community.”

The gold star symbolism goes back to World War I, when families with loved ones serving overseas displayed blue star banners in their windows. Families of the fallen then replaced the blue star banner with a gold star banner to bring awareness and honor to their lost loved one.

Gold Star Mothers Day, observed on the last Sunday in September, was established by joint congressional resolution on June 23, 1936, and has been observed each year since by presidential proclamation.

From the most junior enlisted to the most senior officer, it’s a day when all service members render a salute to the mothers who lost their children in service to America.

“We should be so proud of them and their sacrifice,” Gen. Ray Odierno told the Washington Post as he retired last month. “They love just staying connected to the Army, to the units that their children or sons or daughters or husbands were in, and for me [it’s] incredibly important that we do that.”