KINGWOOD, W. Va. - The West Virginia National Guard (WVNG) hosted the annual Gold Star Families Retreat at Camp Dawson in Kingwood, West Virginia, Sept. 27 through 29, 2019, for more than 400 attendees, including WVNG members, supporters and families of 59 fallen service members.

The Gold Star Families retreat is hosted each year by the WVNG to honor the service and sacrifice of Gold Star Families - those who have lost a family member in military service. This year's attendance nearly doubled in size compared to last year's retreat.

During the weekend, various events were sponsored to promote healing, camaraderie and remembrance of the family's lost loved one. This year on Friday and Saturday, family members - parents, spouses, siblings, children, loved ones - were invited to join in activities such as fishing, archery, equine therapy, yoga and crafts, as well as having more than 20 vendors on-site to assist with everything from financial questions and insurance to beekeeping and ways to stay connected.

Sunday, a prayer breakfast and naming ceremony were followed by a Missing Man ceremony performed by the Greenbrier High School JROTC in honor of Prisoners of War and those Missing in Action. The weekend was completed with a rose laying and balloon release, with the Patriot Guard Riders acting as color guard.

"First when I got here and saw everybody walking around with these badges on, it was overwhelming that there were so many people here who had suffered a loss," said Cathy Teehan, mother of Sgt. William Friese, a West Virginia Army National Guard Soldier assigned to the 821st Engineer Company who passed away in Camp Buehring, Kuwait, from a non-combat related incident July 18, 2019, while serving in support of Operation Inherent Resolve. "And then one of the ladies talked to me and she had lost her son in 2008 and said, 'Oh, I see you're new to all this,' and I got to cry a little bit. Billy always wanted to give us things. He was just so giving. And it felt like this might be something he wanted for us to do and come and enjoy, and also I felt like it was a chance to keep his memory alive and honor him just a little bit more."

Gold Star Families from every era are welcomed to attend the event, from World War II to the current conflicts in the Middle East including Afghanistan and Iraq.

"Gold Star weekend is one of the most significant events we do as a National Guard," said Maj. Gen. James Hoyer, Adjutant General of the West Virginia National Guard. "West Virginia is known as a state that takes care of its veterans and service members, but one of the most important jobs we have is to support our Gold Star Families through events such as this. It's truly an honor for us to come together and provide a place of healing and comfort for those families who have made the ultimate sacrifice for our Nation."

The annual Gold Star Families retreat is held the last weekend in September each year, in conjunction with national Gold Star Mother's and Gold Star Family's day, which is celebrated on the last Sunday in September.