Army honors Gold Star Families with unveiling of new memorial

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Aberdeen Proving Ground noncommissioned officers gracefully unveil the new Legacy Forest Gold Star Memorial at Plum Point during the ceremony preceding the Gold Star Spouses & Family Tea at Top of the Bay, May 19, 2019. (Army photograph by Sean Kief)

Countless programs honoring the armed forces were held across the nation during the 2019 Military Appreciation Week, which ran May 13-18.

Almost certainly, every observance hailed the nation’s warriors. At Aberdeen Proving Ground, however, on May 19, a unique ceremony took place on a sun-drenched field which inaugurated a new Legacy Forest Memorial, and possibly began a tradition of pilgrimage that could last for generations.

Gold Star Family members, local dignitaries and guests gathered on Plum Point near the Top of the Bay banquet hall to witness the unveiling of the new Legacy Forest Memorial during the Gold Star Spouses & Family Tea event.

The program, which began outside at the as yet unfinished memorial site, included remarks by APG Senior Commander Maj. Gen Randy Taylor, commander of the U.S. Army Communications-Electronics Command, and a moving presentation of stones engraved with the names of the fallen — many of whose family members were in attendance — conducted by APG Soldiers and led by CECOM Command Sgt. Maj. Frank Gutierrez.

“Americans recognize that no one has given more to these United States, than the Families of the fallen,” said the program emcee, Drew Rehkop, CECOM Strategic Initiatives Group lead, as he introduced Taylor.

With soft-spoken reverence, Taylor talked the audience through the unveiling of the reflective gold star on the monument floor, the placing of the stones and the unveiling of the monument.

Noting that the project was first discussed in April 2018, Taylor said, “Those of you who were with us when we revealed the initial concept of this project can see how far we’ve come.”

Taylor also praised APG Garrison Commander Col. Rob Phillips for his “dedication to the project.”

The Gold Star, which is inlaid on reflective black marble, lies on the floor in front of the monument, which rests atop three stairs engraved with the words, “A tribute…to those who sacrificed … a loved one for our freedom.” The top of the monument consists of a sculpture of a pair of combat boots atop a rocky base with an inverted rifle supporting a helmet and a pair of “dog” tags hanging from its trigger guard, known as the Battlefield Cross. The sight of this too recognizable symbol of the fallen brought forth more than a few indrawn breaths when it was unveiled and the crowd warmly applauded its approval.

A view of the just unveiled Gold Star Legacy Memorial on Aberdeen Proving Ground, which had just been unveiled during a ceremony honoring Gold Star Spouses and Family members, May 19, 2019. (Army photograph by Sean Kief)

The ceremony included the reading of names of the fallen and the rendering of honors to fallen service members.

Taylor assured family members that the memorial was created with them in mind.

“Even in your darkest hours of pain and grief, you can find comfort, support and solidarity here,” he said, adding special thanks to Mike Farlow, APG Survivor Outreach Services program manager, for his coordination and support of the project.

“It’s an incredible job that he’s doing every day,” Taylor said, noting that the office supports 262 Families of fallen heroes within the APG region.

“I hope this event assures you that at APG we will never, ever forget the memory of your loved ones and what they gave to preserve the United States of America.”

The ceremony then moved indoors where an array of teas and light fare prepared by Chef Michael Artus-Cooper and the Top of the Bay staff awaited guests.

Reactions
Gold Star mothers, spouses and Family members expressed their appreciation of the monument, the ceremony and the overall gesture of solidarity. Donna Robinson, Maryland Gold Star Mothers Sgt. at Arms, said the ceremony brought tears to her eyes.

“It brought it all back,” she said, “but like the general said, it was a happy occasion so it was really bittersweet. I really appreciate everything they do here at [APG]. They have truly been there for us, but this monument, that’s over the top for me.”

Robinson is the mother of Staff Sgt. Damion Campbell, an Army medic who was serving with the 173rd Airborne Brigade in Afghanistan when he was killed by an improvised explosive device, Aug. 26, 2005.

Jennifer Freeman, the spouse of Sgt. Jameel Freeman who died Aug. 11, 2011 in Kandahar province, Afghanistan, of injuries sustained when an IED detonated near his vehicle while serving with the 1st Battalion, 32nd Infantry Regiment, 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 10th Mountain Division, out of Fort Drum, New York, said she was happy her daughter was able to witness the tribute to her father, who was killed on her birthday.

“I thought the ceremony was so nice and beautiful. The tea is so elegant and well put together. It all just makes you feel like a community,” she said. “It was very emotional,” she added of the ceremony, “but I did hold it together.

“I always make sure she is able to see honors to her father; I want to establish it as something she can carry on when she grows up and moves on. It’s wonderful that she has this place she can come to and bring her family to see her father’s name.”

Ivan Willie, the spouse of Sgt. 1st Class Spring Lisabeth Law, who was shot and killed by a gunman who then committed suicide near her Fort Belvoir, Virginia home in September 2000, said he was deeply touched by the ceremony. The Army veteran and former APG human resources contractor noted that one of their last evenings together was spent at an Ordnance Ball at Top of the Bay. Willie said he too was happy to bring his son, Duane, who was 13 at the time and home at the time of the shooting, to the ceremony. Several family members accompanied Willie and his son to the event.

“Today was like a Family affair,” Willie said. “It touched me deeply but I’m glad he was here to see this. It’s special that this is a place he can always come back to. I’m glad APG set the standard by having this event and maybe it will spread across the Army.

“Just seeing all the other families and support groups really struck me,” he said. “It lets you know you’re not the only one going through something like this. I’d just like to add my thanks to everyone who put this together. Today was a good day.”

Farlow said the monument grew from the original idea of a Legacy Forest as first suggested by Gold Star Family members. He noted that the next phase of the project will feature a multi-use stone pavilion in the center.

“It can draw people to the area,” he said. “People can be celebrating, taking wedding photos or prom photos; people can be living their lives and turning a sad place into a happy place. It’s a tribute to those who provided their freedom.”

Spouses, family tea
Guests dined on an array of carefully prepared delicacies, such as cranberry orange scones; high tea tartlets, petit croissant; and assorted petit fours and finger sandwiches.

Ceremony guests included Janice Chance, president, Maryland Gold Star Mothers; Dr. Alan McCarthy, Cecil County Executive; Matthew Meyer, New Castle County, Delaware Executive; Maryland State Senator Bob Cassilly; Maj. Gen. Cedric Wins, commander of the U.S. Army Combat Capabilities Development Command; Maj. Gen. Peter Gallagher, Network Cross Functional Team Director; and Brig. Gen. Robert Collins, Program Executive Officer for Intelligence Electronic Warfare & Sensors.

Gold Star Family
The term Gold Star Family is a modern reference that comes from the Service Flag.

Families first flew them during World War I. The flag included a blue star for every immediate family member serving in the armed forces of the United States during any period of war or hostilities in which the armed forces were engaged. If that loved one died, a gold star replaced the blue star. This allowed community members to know the price the family had paid in the cause of freedom.

The nation began observing Gold Star Mother’s Day on the last Sunday of September in 1936. The Gold Star Wives was formed before the end of World War II. The Gold Star lapel button was established in August 1947.

Today, we recognize the sacrifice all Gold Star Family members make when a father, mother, brother, sister, son, daughter, or other loved one died in service to the nation. Gold Star Mother’s and Family’s Day is the last Sunday of September and Gold Star Spouses Day is April 5.