By Danielle DeSimone
Becoming a Gold Star Family means facing insurmountable loss. The title, after all, is reserved for families of military members who have died in the line of duty, and it is intended to honor the service member’s ultimate sacrifice while acknowledging their family’s loss, grief and continued healing. But for many of these Gold Star Family members, the death of their service member is not only a devastating loss of their loved one – it can often also seem like the loss of an identity, of a community, of an entire way of life.
After the death of a service member, somehow, the world continues to turn – but for the family members of the fallen service member, the loss of their loved one is an ever-present reality that can shape their daily life. And although the grieving and healing process is a personal one for each family member, many Gold Star Families have found comfort in leaning on their communities – both those who have also lost a service member, as well as the greater military community.
Gold Star Family Members Find Comfort in Community
Although others may be able to sympathize with the loss of a loved one, only other Gold Star Families can truly understand the shock and pain that comes with losing a loved one while they served in the military. That’s why it’s so important for Gold Star Families to find comfort and strength from each other.
For Susannah Preacher, who was only 18 years-old at the time of her brother Sgt. Matthew Preacher’s death in 2009, having a community of Gold Star Families to lean on was crucial – especially during the holidays, when his presence was especially missed.
“To know what I have been through, it helps me because I know others have been through it,” Preacher said. “I can go enjoy myself with other people and not worry about my brother’s death for just a moment.”
When Gold Star Wife Katie Van Aalst’s husband, Master Sgt. Jared Van Aalst, a special operations soldier, was killed in Afghanistan in 2010, she found comfort in community. For Van Aalst, attending events hosted by the Army’s Gold Star Program and Survivor Outreach Services has been crucial to her family’s grieving process, although she was not initially enthusiastic about the prospect.
“In the beginning I didn’t want to attend,” Van Aalst said. “Grief comes in stages.”
Over the years, Van Aalst has participated in more community events and has ensured that her children attend them as well. She knows that these events help her children have a better understanding of the community they are a part of and the ultimate sacrifice their father made.
“It’s important for them to be around other people who have experienced the same grief and loss,” she said.
In Illinois, Gold Star Family members created a Facebook group to support one another both online and through in-person events.
“We can’t change what happened and we know that,” said Gary Patriquin, a member of the group. “But we can be supportive of each other.”
Even after such a loss, Gold Star Families can find comfort not only in others who have been through the same, terrible experience, but also in the larger military community, which will always count them as one of their own.
Gold Star Family Members Continue to Be a Part of the Military Community
After the loss of a military family member, it may be difficult for Gold Star Families to still feel as if they are a part of the larger military community. After losing so much in the death of their service member, losing access to the military life they’ve been a part of for so long can be a shock for these Gold Star Families.
For many years, after a service member passed away, the military family would receive support immediately after their death – but over the years, contact with the military community would fade away. More recently, military branches have made concerted efforts to not only stay connected to these families, but to actively support them well after the passing of their loved one.
“It’s important that we keep that relationship with [the families]. No one knows better what they have been through,” said Army Lt. Col. Thomas Hough, during an event in Fairbanks, Alaska, in 2014 for children who have lost a parent to war. “If not us, then who?”
Today, Gold Star Families are still welcomed as active members of the military community itself, not just in base amenities. Many units of the fallen service member work hard to remain close with the family of the service member, and to support them through the grieving process.
Recent congressional action has also worked towards ensuring Gold Star Family members have base access and can still take advantage of benefits such as the commissary or recreation facilities.
The U.S. military’s outreach efforts to Gold Star Families show that these family members are still very much a part of the larger military community and will continue to be forevermore.
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