For more than 85 years, our nation has designated the last Sunday of September as a day to honor and remember our Gold Star Families.
This is a somber occasion no family wishes to mark. Yet I believe it is our obligation – to our fallen brothers and sisters – to pay tribute to those who have made the supreme sacrifice of losing a loved one in service to this nation.
It was my honor to be able to meet an incredible Gold Star spouse and family here in the Quad Cities this month, and I’d like to share their story.
Marie Derry was 18 and pregnant on the morning two Army officers arrived at her Memphis door in March of 1968. She was informed her husband, Pfc. Wayne Derry, was missing in action in Vietnam.
It was the height of the Tet Offensive, and Pfc. Derry had been assigned to the 25th Infantry Division. On 22 March, after less than three months in country, his unit was tasked with conducting reconnaissance to clear a critical supply route. Their vehicle was hit by an anti-tank mine, and Pfc. Derry died from his injuries.
“That visit from the Army officers is a total blur,” Marie remembers. “I didn’t know what that meant exactly.”
Later that afternoon, it became clear. Shortly after the officers left, a Western Union telegram arrived at Marie’s door on Sunny Brook Street. It informed the shocked young wife that PFC Derry’s body had been recovered and would be arriving back in the states via airplane within the week.
After her husband’s burial, young Marie moved to Illinois to be near family living in East Moline. With the help of her mother and an older brother, she raised the daughter her husband never met, Trina. The house always had a framed photo of Pfc. Derry in his Army uniform and Trina frequently heard stories of her dad, who had been her mother’s sweetheart since childhood.
Wayne’s service allotment checks found the family after they moved to Illinois, but, for some reason, the family never received his medals: the Bronze Star, Purple Heart, Combat Infantryman’s Badge. They also never got the flag that was draped over his coffin, something that long haunted Marie.
Nearly 50 years after her loss, Marie began working with her Illinois U.S. Representative to seek the medals. With the assistance of Rep. Cheri Bustos (D-Ill.), they finally were approved but the family was seeking a proper military presentation. First Army was honored to get the call asking if we would help.
We organized a beautiful and reverent ceremony to honor this fallen Soldier as well as his wife and the daughter he never met. It was a privilege to be able to present them the medals, a folded American flag and to call attention not only to Pfc. Derry but to the family that so loved him. In my speech I put it like this:
PFC Wayne Derry’s story did not end in the Dau Tieng province of Vietnam. Marie, you ensured it went on. You made sure he lived on in his daughter and granddaughters and great granddaughter. You honored him in ways big and small for more than 54 years, on birthdays and anniversaries and holidays, whenever you told a story about him, when you hung his photo in every house you ever lived in. You made this day happen by sheer force of will and undying love.
September may be the month set aside for official observances in honor of Gold Star families, but my heartfelt belief is this: we must remember them every day, in all we do, and support them every chance we can.
I suppose there could be no better place to be reminded of that truth than here in Illinois. Abraham Lincoln, perhaps the greatest leader to ever hail from this state, famously composed a letter at the height of the Civil War to a mother whose sons had been killed in battle.
“I pray,” he wrote, “that our Heavenly Father may assuage the anguish of your bereavement and leave you only the cherished memory of the loved and lost, and the solemn pride that must be yours to have laid so costly a sacrifice upon the altar of freedom.”
That is my prayer as well, for the family of Pfc. Derry as well as for every family who has made this most unimaginable sacrifice on behalf of our nation and all the freedoms we hold so dear.