The annual Holiday Wishes event was held at the NCO Club Dec. 1 to honor Gold Star Mothers and Families and their lost Soldiers.

The event doubled in size this year, officials said. There were 215 people registered and even Saint Nick made an appearance.

The 282nd Army Band woodwind quintet played holiday music, and Ann Brodie's Carolina Ballet performed choreography from The Nutcracker.

An ornament ceremony was performed in commemoration of those lost.

Each Gold Star Family representative in attendance took turns hanging an ornament on the holiday tree in honor of their fallen Soldier.

Brig. Gen. Milford "Beags" Beagle Jr., Fort Jackson commander, and Maj. Gen. Robert Livingston, Jr., South Carolina Adjutant General, said a few words to the Family members gathered.

Beagle welcomed lost Soldiers' loved ones back into the Army community.

"You can get in; this is your Army," he said, adding that "the lock on the door may be a little bit tricky" at times, but it is always open. Beagle wanted Families to know they are still part of the military Family, even if their Soldier has died.

Beagle commented on the difficulty of this season for Families. There is a fear of lost Soldiers being forgotten, he said, and holidays magnify the loss.

"The holidays are some of the most difficult terrain you will have to navigate," Beagle said. "You will not navigate that terrain alone."

Gold Star events are a reminder of that.

Fort Jackson's Survivor Outreach Support Coordinator Kelly Estep said Gold Star events are key to "ensure that all our surviving Family members still feel a part of our Army."

Elaine Johnson, vice president of the American Gold Star Mothers South Carolina chapter, said the events help during this challenging time of year.

Johnson is a Gold Star Mother of 15 years. In 2003, she lost her son.

"(My son) has always been my hero," Johnson said. "He gave his life for his country and comrades."
Johnson's son was Spc. Darius T. Jennings, born Nov. 13, 1980. He died Nov. 2, 2003.

Jennings was serving the Army in Iraq, after signing up two years before -- fresh out of high school.
Jennings had been granted 15 days of rest and recuperation, and he was scheduled to take off in a Chinook helicopter headed back to the United States for 14 days.

There were two helicopters leaving that day: the first for 14 days, and the second for four.

Jennings learned that one Soldier with a seat on the second helicopter may miss the birth of his child if he didn't get home sooner.

Jennings gave up his spot on the first flight.

He had never met the man he traded seats with, Johnson said.

In flight, the second Chinook was shot down, killing 16 Soldiers. Jennings was among them.

"I always told my son the value of Family," Johnson said, adding that he must have taken her message seriously. "My son had that heart of gold … for a stranger."

The holiday season is when Johnson says she puts on many faces. "Christmas will never be Christmas again," she said.

These events help, she continued.

"I love seeing my Gold Star Moms," Johnson added.

Livingston pointed out that although the Soldiers are gone from this earth, they aren't lost.

"(Their story) is written in permanent ink in history," he said. "That service will never be forgotten."

Their legacy belongs to Family members, who keep their memory alive, Livingston said.

That's one thing Livingston said makes this country great: its focus on Family.

"We start with Family and we build outward," he said.