Donna Engeman started wearing the Gold Star lapel pin after her husband, Chief Warrant Officer John Engeman, was killed southeast of Baghdad on May 14, 2006. She wanted to honor and remember the man she admired as "superman."
But she soon realized the significance of the star was lost on others.
Not long after his death, she tried to order a Gold Star license plate at the DMV. The clerk unknowingly asked if Engeman was the service member. When she replied no, she was not, the clerk told Engeman her husband needed to be with her.
The clerk thought she wanted a disabled veteran license plate, and Engeman couldn't get her to understand the difference between a Gold Star and a Purple Heart - an awkward conversation, indeed. They were both relieved when she left.
Awkward too, when people say, "I love that pin, it goes so well with your outfit." Or when they ask, "Where do you get one?"
"It's funny and ironic" Engeman said. "You want people to know about their sacrifice, but you don't want to stand there and grab someone by the collar and yell, 'He's dead!' So you just walk away, shake your head and eat some chocolate. That's when I get mad at him all over again and say, 'You left me with this.'"
It's a feeling many Gold Star Survivors know, and unfortunately, her experience is not an isolated one. She's seen that, despite being at war for nearly a decade, even many military personnel still don't know what a Gold Star signifies.
The lack of recognition, not just for Survivors, but for their loved ones, hurts deeply.
"It's disheartening to be so far into this war, yet when I drive around with a bumper sticker and pin and people just don't know," she said.
Engeman uses her experience in her work as a survivor advocate and special projects coordinator for the Family and Morale, Welfare and Recreation Command's Survivor Outreach Services. As a Gold Star Wife and advocate, she believes that more needs to be done to increase awareness.
According to Engeman, the Army is working hard to ensure Survivors don't feel quite so alone. As part of this initiatives, FMWRC established SOS in October, 2008. Its mission is to build a unified support program that embraces and reassures Survivors that they are continually linked to the Army Family for as long as they desire. The comprehensive program is designed to meet the needs of Survivors with a wide-range of support, services and programs.
For example, last year SOS established Survivor Decals to make it easier for those without Department of Defense identification cards to enter installations. Before that, Survivors had to get a visitor or temporary vehicle pass to access garrisons and the SOS programs and services offered there.
Congress, too, made strides last year to honor Survivors by designating Dec. 18 as Gold Star Wives Day. Gold Star Mother's Day, held on the last Sunday in September, has recognized the sorrow and sacrifice of mothers of fallen sons and daughters every year since 1936.
But still, many people "just don't know" what the Gold Star is, even though its history dates to World War I.
Even today, Families hang service banners outside their homes if they had a loved one serving overseas. There were two types of service banners: One has a white background, red border and blue stars that indicate the number of family members serving in harm's way. The other has a white background, blue border and gold stars, indicating the number of Family members killed in combat. From these banners grew the terms Gold Star Mothers, Wives and Family Members.
In 1947, an Act of Congress standardized the service banners and established the Gold Star lapel pins to issue to immediate Family members of servicemembers killed in combat, including those who have committed suicide in theater. The Next of Kin pin signifies a service-related death or suicide during active duty other than combat.
A senior general officer, representing the Army itself, usually presents the pin and colors to the spouse or next of kin during the funeral. Casualty assistance officers coordinate this solemn rite.
"Not everyone is congenial about receiving the pin or flag, and it's presumptuous to assume so," said Edward Maney, Casualty Assistance Center chief at Ft. Sam Houston. "But it's our way of extending our heart to them."
As senior Army chaplain at Arlington National Cemetery from 1996 to 2000, Maney has become familiar with the delicate process of grieving and healing. He believes the Gold Star program needs to be better integrated into the "fabric of the military and society" across the board.
Charlene Westbrook, a Gold Star Wife, agrees that more needs to be done to increase awareness.
Like Engeman, she has had her share of uncomfortable experiences. She became familiar with Gold Star pins long before her husband, Sgt. 1st Class Kenneth Westbrook, died on Oct. 7, 2009, from injuries sustained in an ambush in Iraq.
His brother and her sister's husband were both killed in Iraq in 2005, so she knew that those who wear the tiny gold star bear a loss heavier than any medal can convey. Still, she hoped at least members of the military and those who work with them would understand.
So she was surprised when during a trip to her local installation to register her three sons, ages 21, 19 and 16 for an Army-sponsored event, some Army employees didn't understand the significance of the Gold Star. It had been just a month after her husband died, she explained to the employee, and they weren't feeling so good.
"I told them, 'We're a Gold Star Family, and we're kind of fragile right now,'" she said. "They were like, 'What's that?' with no compassion."
Emotions flared, the manager was summoned and apologized after Westbrook submitted a customer complaint. But the sting of the slight lingered.
"It almost feels disrespectful," she said. "I just wish there was some kind of training or acknowledgment for military and civilian personnel who work on installations to be more aware of what the Gold Star means and to have that compassion. I didn't want them to treat us like eggs, but just to know that we're in this state."
It's a familiar story Gold Star Survivors tell in groups like the Gold Star Wives, Gold Star Mothers and Gold Star Dads, which came together for support and healing. They also work to promote the ideals of the military and to support veterans, service members and each other. The Gold Star Mothers, started in 1929, and the Gold Star Wives, formed in 1945, are both chartered by Congress.
"There's an unspoken bond among Survivors -- it doesn't matter whether he or she is a widow, parent or child. People I don't even know walk up to me and put their arm around me, and that's very comforting," Engeman said. "When you see the star and the banner, you just know." But for those who don't know, she urged, try to understand. "Don't be afraid to thank Survivors for their sacrifice," she said. "Remember what the star means."