Gold Star Spouse Day recognizes spouses of active duty Soldiers who are killed in action
1 / 2 Show Caption + Hide Caption – Annie Cox with Staff Sgt. Nathan Cox and their daughter Sophie in 2006. Staff Sgt. Cox was killed in action by a roadside bomb September 20, 2008 in the Korengal Valley, Afghanistan, in support of Operation Enduring Freedom. (Photo Credit: Greg Wilson) VIEW ORIGINAL
Gold Star Spouse Day recognizes spouses of active duty Soldiers who are killed in action
2 / 2 Show Caption + Hide Caption – Staff Sgt. Nathan Cox, while deployed to Afghanistan in 2008. He was killed in action by a roadside bomb September 20, 2008 in the Korengal Valley, Afghanistan, in support of Operation Enduring Freedom. (Photo Credit: Greg Wilson) VIEW ORIGINAL

ROCK ISLAND ARSENAL, Ill. — April 5 is Gold Star Spouse Day. Nearly all active military, veterans, and military Civilians know what a Gold Star Spouse is. They are the wives and husbands of active duty men and women who have been killed in action.

We’ve all seen movies where a knock at the door by two uniformed service members brings with it the heart-rending news that no one wants to hear – the loss of a loved one in combat. But sadly, in the world in which we live, those traumatic encounters have happened and will continue to happen.

Annie Cox, from Davenport, Iowa, is one of those who has been through the enormous emotional upheaval that comes with the loss of someone, who she called “the love of her life.” Army Staff Sgt. Nathan “Nate” Cox was killed in action by a roadside bomb Sept. 20, 2008 in the Korengal Valley, Afghanistan, in support of Operation Enduring Freedom. He was ten days shy of his 33rd birthday.

Annie keeps alive fond memories of her husband. “Nathan was a very easygoing man,” she said. “He loved to read, he loved to sit and talk to people, just sit and visit and see what the other person’s like. Nathan never met a stranger.”

When they married, Annie was already raising two teens, Jake and Nichole, from a previous marriage. Nathan and Annie had a child together, Sophie, who was not quite six years old when Nathan was killed.

“He was a real good dad. He was a good father to my older kids, and Sophie of course,” she said. “He was just a joy to be around.”

In 2008, Nathan, Annie and Sophie were living in military family housing at Fort Hood, Texas, as Jake and Nichole had moved on and were living their own lives. Nathan was deployed to Afghanistan in July, 2008. It was his second deployment, having already served in Iraq.

Annie, like many spouses of deployed Soldiers, had friends among the other Soldiers on the installation and their families. She had a job with an Army unit, the 303rd Intelligence Battalion, and was involved in numerous Army family support activities on base. While Soldiers, of course, were always a part of the neighborhood, they usually wore their day to day “utility” uniform, and rarely wore their dress green uniform.

On the day Nathan died, Annie said she was surprised to see two “green suiters” outside her home. A friend, whose husband was also deployed, was with Annie in her house when the two men knocked on the door and asked to come in. One of them was the Chaplain with the 303rd IB. Annie said she and her friend instantly knew something was terribly wrong, and her friend whisked Sophie away and took her to another friend’s house so she wouldn’t hear what Annie was about to hear.

“So, I let them say everything to me,” she said, “and then I immediately went into the mode of ‘I need to call Nate’s parents and let them know right now!’ I didn’t know they had a team already sent to them.”

After offering their condolences and answering questions, one of the officers said, “we probably need to tell Sophie.”

Annie and Nathan had to put down their dog Chloe just two weeks before he deployed, and when Sophie was told what had happened to her dad, Annie said, “she looked at me, confused, and she just said ‘is he in heaven with Chloe?’ I said ‘yes, he is in heaven with Chloe.’ She was two months from turning six, so it was a crazy time for her and her little girl mind to process all that.”

Annie said she herself was “numb” for the first few months, but fortunately was surrounded by family and friends who helped her get through it.

“It really didn’t sink all the way in. Even at Christmas that year, I wasn’t really sad because he wasn’t supposed to be home. In my mind, I had prepared. He wasn’t supposed to be here anyway because he was deployed.”

She said the next Christmas was tough “because he should’ve been there. Very tough. Thanksgiving’s not bad, but Christmas is really hard.”

There are other times of the year when the pain is especially acute.

“I know August 20th, what’s going to happen in a month, and we get to it, and I break down and cry, work through it, get through his birthday, and then in October I can breathe again.”

The pain also returns when she sees other Gold Star spouses, because she knows what they’re going through, and it brings back the searing emotions she experienced when she first heard of Nathan’s death.

“When your loved one is killed, as Nathan was, you have to pick up and go on. You have no choice. I think Gold Star spouses should be honored, because they’re the ones carrying the torches now.”

Annie said it’s hard if you haven’t been through it, because you don’t know what that family is feeling.

“It’s almost like we have PTSD from that day. And I know every time a Soldier doesn’t make it home how bad it hurts the family. I know the heartache and pain they’re going to live through.”

She said the Army and her “Army family” were very supportive and helpful, in particular her Casualty Assistance Officer, who gave advice and helped with navigating the bureaucracy, which can seem insurmountable to someone going through the hardship of losing a loved one.

Annie said we honor our service members and veterans for their sacrifice in defending America, and it’s only appropriate that those who pay the ultimate sacrifice receive special honors. She says it’s also important to recognize those who are left with the empty place inside because of that sacrifice.

“It’s forever sad, that side of my heart.”

Many don’t realize there are two different lapel pins given to family members in recognition of the death of a service member. One for family members of an active duty service member who died in combat, like Staff Sgt. Cox, and one for the family of an active duty service member who died, but not in combat. Both have a gold star in them, but the design is different, and, of course, so is the significance.

Annie said she’s had people who received the “other” Gold Star tell her that they would prefer the kind of Gold Star she was presented. Her reply? “You give me my husband back, and you can have my Gold Star.”