Military Community Finds Strength in Gold Star Mothers

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

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.”

All Gave Some, Some Gave All. And Some Are Still Missing.


National POW/MIA Recognition Day is observed on the third Friday in September. But while many instantly recognize the cause’s flag, they likely don’t know how to commemorate the occasion compared to the other military connected days.

Veterans Day is observed with the understanding that all gave some. All veterans, no matter what their role or rank, put their lives on the line when they volunteered to wear the uniform.

Memorial Day is observed with the understanding that some gave all. We use the day to remember the human cost of war.

National POW/MIA Recognition Day is a day to both honor the service and sacrifice of our missing and captive and also refocus America’s energy and attention to the promise it made to bring them home.

With that in mind, here are three reads about the day and issues surrounding it:

More than 80,000 Americans have yet to come home from past conflicts. Many of those families never received a folded flag. They never had a burial in the rain or launched a memorial in their loved one’s name. When someone goes missing in action, the families often sit and linger in limbo. That’s why today was created: to remember the promise of bringing their loved ones home.

Did You Know? 11 Facts for the Air Force’s 68th Birthday

Air Force photo

Air Force photo

As the Air Force celebrates its 68th birthday, here’s 11 things you may not know about the youngest branch of America’s military.

1. Technically, Air Force One isn’t just one plane. The term Air Force One refers to any plane the commander in chief is traveling aboard. The White House currently has two customized Boeing 747-200B aircraft available specifically to transport the president.

2. The Air Force shares its birthday with the CIA. Both were founded on September 18, 1947.

Air Force photo

Air Force photo

3. The Air Force Memorial is one of the sneakily great places to get a view of downtown Washington. It’s tucked between the Pentagon and a large shopping mall. Rarely crowded, visitors can stand below the three spires and get a panoramic view of our nation’s capital.

4. Battle-hardened weathermen? Check. A hat-tip to Mental Floss for this nugget in a June story about how the Air Force sends Special Operations Weather Teams into the unfriendly skies to check out conditions before sending larger groups of aircraft into a region.

5. Airmen … on the ground: The Air Force is in charge of cyber security, an ever-expanding field in the new world of defense. They’re currently recruiting 6,000 cybersecurity personnel by 2017.

6. A “roof stomp” is an Air Force tradition where airmen welcome new commander or celebrate a special occasion by climbing up on the commander’s roof to make noise while others are bang on the windows and doors. The commander then opens the door to welcome in the group for refreshments. (In recent years, some airmen have modified the tradition to a “porch stomp.”)


7. Each March, some airmen participate in a Mustache March, a tradition where airmen grow mustaches to honor Air Force legend and triple ace Brig. Gen. Robin Olds.

8. Johnny Cash, Morgan Freeman and James Stewert are just a handful of the celebrities who have served as airmen. Stewart – who won an Oscar for “Philadelphia Story” before flying missions in World War II and Vietnam – rose to the rank of brigadier general in the Air Force Reserve.

9. Before the Air Force became its own branch of the military, it was a part of the Army. On Aug. 1, 1907, the U.S. Army Signal Corps formed the Aeronautical Division, which later evolved into the Air Force.

Air Force combat ace Robin Olds and his famous 'stache. Photo via commons

Air Force combat ace Robin Olds and his famous ‘stache. Photo via commons

10. In 1947, then-Air Force Capt. Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier in his Bell X-1 rocket-powered aircraft, beginning a new era of aeronautics in America.

11. Two U.S. presidents — Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush — served as airmen. Reagan’s service came when the branch was still the Army Air Forces. Bush served in the Texas Air National Guard before transferring to the Air Force Reserve.

A USO Tour in Alaska: Sirius XM The Highway Host Storme Warren Brings Country Stars Rodney Atkins and The Swon Brothers to Troops

Sirius XM’s The Highway personality Storme Warren — along with country artists Rodney Atkins and The Swon Brothers — have taken to Alaska to bring troops in the far-flung region something they rarely get: a USO tour. Here are some highlights from the first stop on their weeklong trip.

The tour spans a week and will visit Eielson Air Force Base, Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson and U.S. Coast Guard Base Kodiak among other locations.

You can follow the tour around the world, too, by tuning into SiriusXM’s The Highway (Channel 56).

USO Operation That’s My Dress Gives Cancer-Stricken Soldier a Much-Needed Boost

Army 1st Sgt. Jennifer Stafford, center, poses with Miss West Virginia during a USO Operation That's My Dress event June 27 in Fort Drum, New York. USO photo

Army 1st Sgt. Jennifer Stafford, center, poses with Miss West Virginia Teen USA Cora King during a USO Operation That’s My Dress event June 27 in Fort Drum, New York. USO photo

A career soldier, Army, Sgt. 1st Class Jennifer Stafford is a woman in a male-dominated world. And lately, she’d felt like her womanhood was being stripped away, piece by piece.

After losing her mother to uterine cancer and watching her aunt fight and beat breast cancer, Stafford – the mother of three boys – was forced to have a hysterectomy just weeks before Mother’s Day.

Then, as Mother’s Day approached, a lump in her breast was diagnosed as cancer.

“It was a hard pill to swallow,” said Stafford, who is still serving on active duty in Fort Drum, New York, after 21 years in the Army as a nuclear, biological and chemical weapons specialist. “How did I get both what my mom and my aunt had?” She was depressed for weeks until her friend and USO volunteer Glynnis Moore suggested she sign up to attend USO Operation That’s My Dress, a program that gives free ball gowns to female service members, spouses and teenage dependents for homecoming and prom seasons, military balls and the holidays.

“I’ve never asked for anything back,” Stafford recalled thinking. “So what the heck? I’ll sign up.”

On June 27, she waited in line in the rain with hundreds of other girls and mothers eager to see what the USO had in store. When the doors opened, she was overwhelmed by all the pink, cute, frilly dresses on display. There were also dozens of runway model consultants to help them find an appropriate look.

The event began with a fashion show, featuring professional models and Miss USA contestants who showed off the gowns and matching jewelry that was available. Beauty pageant contestants and celebrity stylists also stuck around to do the participants’ hair and makeup.

Stafford settled on a gold and white dress by Sherri Hill, a longtime sponsor of the Operation That’s My Dress events.

She felt so good looking at herself in the mirror that she was moved to tears. Her voice still cracks when she thinks about how that dress made her feel that day.

“Coming up through the ranks in the military – now I’m an E-7 – you constantly have to prove yourself as a female in a male-dominated world,” Stafford said. “And for once as soldier, my womanhood was being celebrated. Right when I needed it most, the USO was there with exactly what I needed.”

While she’s still fighting toward full remission, the USO event gave her another tool to use on the worst days of her fight.

“I’m in awe by [the dress] still,” she said. “I take it out every week and I look at it. It marked the close of a terrible year, so while I can’t wait for my first opportunity to wear the dress, it has to be a truly special event.”


Keeping Them Cool: USO Centers In Southwest Asia Host Water Events

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

It started as a way to beat the heat. But like any other group of trained professionals, it got competitive fast.

While summertime temperatures in Southwest Asia can soar above 110 degrees, USO center-hosted water-centered events incentivize troops to get outside on even the most broiling days.

“Many times you see troops utilizing some of their combat training [when they play water games],” USO Camp Arifjan Center Manager Shea Carson wrote in an email. “Except this time, they have smiles on their faces.”

While USO centers in Southwest Asia provide a number of indoor activities, too, the outdoor water contests have become a creative way to help troops blow off steam.

“Water balloon fights, tosses and races give the troops the ability to cool down in a way that isn’t going to get them in too much trouble,” USO Bagram Duty Manager Kelly Audet wrote in an email. “Who doesn’t enjoy the anticipation of being able to bean the heck out of someone with a water balloon?”

In addition to simple, impromptu water games, some Southwest Asia USO centers have created special evening-long water events for troops to enjoy. USO Camp Buehring, Kuwait, hosts a Water Wars event every year that features several games and an appearance by the base fire department.

“Out Water Wars event is as unique as all the events we host at Buehring,” USO Camp Buehring Center Manager Tiffany Banks wrote in an email. “It is not common to see a large fire truck (sirens on) engaging in a water fight with soldiers! It is a sight to see!”