On the last Sunday of September, a dozen or so families gathered in the banquet hall of Famous Dave’s in West Jordan for a special ceremony. The room was filled to capacity, yet utterly silent. Everyone was standing with hands over their hearts, as soldiers from the Utah National Guard reverently, respectfully, retired the flag. It is a scene that has likely played out across the nation this weekend, in different ways, in different venues, but with the same purpose: to honor the mothers and families of those who have made the ultimate sacrifice.
During times of war, patriotic mothers in the United States have been known to display a flag with a single blue star as a way to show their support for a loved one who fought overseas. Suzanne Wagstaff was one such mother. Her son, Matthew, was an Army Warrant Officer 3, fulfilling his dreams of flying helicopters. One day, Wagstaff got a knock on the door, and two uniformed gentlemen stepped into her home to deliver the devastating news. Matt’s Black Hawk had crashed during a covert military operation in Afghanistan.
Quietly, often unceremoniously, a gold star will replace the blue star of service. Today, the Wagstaff family has a flag with a gold star hanging in the window of their home.
This tradition is thought to arise from the gold gilt star that has historically been worn on a black armband by women in mourning. It was a badge of honor. “[A] personal message of courage and understanding,” as one mother, Caroline Seaman Read, described it in a letter to President Woodrow Wilson in the final months of World War I. “That patriotism means such exalted living that dying is not the harder part.”
The first officially recognized Gold Star Mothers consisted of 25 brave women who were united in Washington, D.C., by this same symbol of hope, courage, loyalty and sacrifice. In 2011, President Barack Obama issued a presidential proclamation commemorating the last Sunday of September as not just a day for mothers, but also a “Gold Star Mother’s and Family’s day.” This year marks the 80th anniversary of a dream that was shared by those early mothers, and once again, Gold Star families were drawn together for strength, encouragement and understanding.
“Through unspeakable sorrow, our Gold Star families suffer from loss that can never be restored—pain that can never truly be healed,” declared President Obama, in his proclamation from the White House, on Sept. 25, 2016. “It is because of their selfless character and unfailing grace that Americans can come home each day, gather with family and friends, and live in peace and security.”
At Arlington National Cemetery, Chief of Staff of the Army Gen. Mark A. Milley placed a wreath on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and spoke to the mothers in attendance. On social media, #GoldStarMothersDay began trending as people took to Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram to pay their respect. And here in West Jordan, Famous Dave’s donated pit-smoked barbeque and their rustic banquet hall in support of this year’s day of remembrance. Following the flag ceremony, President Obama’s 2016 White House proclamation was read in full, and several women shared personal stories.
“Just as he was leaving to get on that plane, he turned and blew me a kiss. And I had an overwhelming sense, right then, that he was never coming home,” Jan Hendrickson recalled, of her son, Cody, who lost his life shortly after graduating from Basic Combat Training.
Hendrickson’s first experience with the Gold Star community was an event held at a Golden Corral restaurant, shortly after her son had passed away. “We left and I cried for three days,” she said. “I didn’t want to go back. But as time went on, I realized that I had to change my life.” She attended more events, started to get to know the other Gold Star women, and soon recognized that they were all in the same boat. She was able to draw strength from the words of another Gold Star Mother, Janice Chance, who also lost her son in Afghanistan: “Yes, I cry, but I do not drown in my tears and I refuse to be paralyzed by my pain … I have chosen to become better.” It was then that Hendrickson realized, “We are stronger together than we are apart.”
The main reason that these mothers are stronger together, explained Wagstaff, is because they’re in a community of people who understand exactly what each other is going through. “You feel like you’re going crazy that first year. Your short-term memory doesn’t really work, and there’s a range of emotion that goes from nonstop tears and anger to numbness—all in a matter of minutes. It’s constant.” It helps, said Wagstaff, to know that you’re not alone. That’s where the Gold Star community steps in. “Grief is one size fits all. It does not care how young or old you are, short or tall, rich or poor, grief envelops all of us the same.”
Similarly, the Gold Star community is one size fits all. The two resounding messages at the dinner that night were “Nobody mourns alone” and “Come as you are.”
Clutching a Gold Star locket close to her heart, Wagstaff said, “One of the only ways to heal, is to serve.” And that’s exactly what she has done. It’s her way of giving back. Her journey through grief may have started with Gold Star Mothers, but she has evolved. Inspired to work with Adobe’s volunteer outreach program, she is once again planning their annual “Thank a Veteran” event on Veterans Day at the Adobe building in Lehi.
“None of us serve alone,” said Brig. Gen. Christine M. Burckle, during her closing remarks at the annual dinner. “Which is why I challenge everyone out there to not only thank our service members, but also thank their daughters, their sons, and their spouses for their sacrifices as well.”