By Glen Paddie, Fort Campbell Courier staffOctober 28, 2011
FORT CAMPBELL, Ky., Oct. 27, 2011 -- Imagine losing a loved one on foreign soil, in a theater of war, never to be told the intimate details of their death, unable to hold their hand as they take their last breath and unable to look them in the eye and tell them, "I love you," one last time.
This kind of scenario is what brought about the advent of American Gold Star Mothers and no military organization understands the importance of the gold star concept more than the 101st Airborne Division, who linked up with Survivor Outreach Services and Army Community Services for a day-long gold star post tour Oct. 20.
The gold star concept began in 1928 when 25 mothers met in Washington, D.C. to establish American Gold Star Mothers. The effort was led by Grace Darling Seibold, whose son, George Vaughn Seibold, was killed in action in World War I in Europe while serving alongside the British military.
Seibold received little to no information on her son's death due to the fact that he was serving under the banner of another nation, albeit an ally.
Since that time, American Gold Star Mothers has added wives, husbands and families to its moniker and has become an organization of coping, connection and healing.
"This is a very humbling experience because these people have paid the ultimate price and deserve our utmost respect," said Sgt. 1st Class Tyler Arnold, chief instructor, Sabalauski Air Assault School. "So, it's an honor to be able to come out here and show them a little bit of what their loved ones went through and experiences while serving in the military."
Arnold took the lead as the tour stopped by the Sabalauski Air Assault School for about an hour and a half.
Tour members were shown the basics of the air assault school and given the opportunity to rappel under the care of the most highly trained air assault Soldiers in the world.
"Saying yes to jumping off the tower was easy, especially knowing my husband did this years ago," said Gold Star wife Vicky Egli, of Thompson Station, Tenn., whose husband, Maj. Paul Egli, 3rd Infantry Division, died just 18 days short of his retirement immediately upon return from Operation Iraqi Freedom. "My knees began to shake as they geared us up and when the instructor asked me on a scale of one to 10 how scared I was, I replied with a 'nine,' but said 'there is no turning back now -- this is for you Paul.'"
Several other Gold Star family members chose to brave the tower and it was without a doubt, the "fun" highlight of the day and the tour.
As with anything connected to gold star, the memory of that lost loved one is never far away, so after the air assault school tour, family members were taken to division headquarters where a memorial service was held to honor their lost loved ones.
"Less than one-percent of America serves in the military," said Maj. Gen. James McConville, commanding general 101st Airborne Division and Fort Campbell, welcoming the Gold Star Families to 101st Airborne Division headquarters. "So many Americans have no idea what our Soldiers and families do and the sacrifices they make."
"Many Americans don't understand the painful goodbyes, the fear and the concern that befalls a family when a newscast reports a story about a firefight downrange or a helicopter going down," he added. "They can't fathom the difficulties of a mother or father being deployed, missing birthdays, holidays, anniversaries, not to mention their child's first touchdown or home run."
McConville admitted he wasn't the most articulate speaker and said he knew words would never suffice or bring clarity to the losses these Gold Star families have faced.
"We can only thank you for the sacrifices of your Soldiers. We can only thank you that we enjoy the freedoms we do today because of your sons and daughters," McConville stated. "We can only thank God in the fact that we have men and women who are willing to serve this country as we go forward."
As the families sat stoically and tearfully listening to McConville's speech, they faced an incomplete wreath of yellow roses in the center of the room.
All Gold Star families who had yellow roses placed in their designated seats were then asked to come forward to place their roses in the wreath to make it complete.
As each family member filed through to place their rose, speakers piped out the apropos lyrics of, "When I Get Where I'm Going," by Brad Paisley and "I'll Keep a Part of You With Me," by Faith Hill.
Even though the memorial was being held at one of the toughest military division headquarters in history, there were few dry eyes in the room.
One new Gold Star Mother's pain stood out, in particular.
"My son, Petty Officer Second Class, Matthew James "Berg" Bergman, was lost at sea in the Gulf of Aden on July 26th of this year," cried Melody Paxton, Nashville, Tenn. "He had just turned 21 and was on his first mission with Expeditionary Strike Force 5 and he just disappeared off the U.S.S. Boxer."
"The wound is really fresh and I feel like him passing has taken away my window into what he did -- who he was," she added. "I mean, it's just been three months."
Alabama native and current Clarksville, Tenn., resident, Rebecca Ponder fully understands Paxton's pain as she lost her son, Master Sgt. James William "Tre" Ponder III in a helicopter crash in Afghanistan in 2005.
Ponder, a crew chief with 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment at Fort Campbell, was only supposed to be training other Night Stalkers from Hunter Army Airfield, Georgia at the time, but volunteered to fill in for another Soldier on a critical mission where he and his crew inserted a Navy Seal team inside enemy territory.
Shortly afterwards, the Seals called in for an immediate extraction after being surrounded by the enemy.
Ponder and his fellow Night Stalkers, doing what they do best, quickly headed to their rescue only to be struck by enemy fire after the extraction was successfully made.
Ponder, along with 17 other Americans troops, were killed as his chopper crashed into the remote mountains of eastern Afghanistan.
"At the time my son was killed, he was doing what he loved to do," Ponder added.
Seeing Paxton physically bearing the grief of losing her son at the memorial was heart rendering enough, but Ponder gave a peak into another dimension to the ever-challenging life of a Gold Star mother.
"There are Vietnam War mothers who still deal with grief," she said. "We all grieve differently, There are not set guidelines to follow. We're all normal and you don't have to get over it in two years or 40 years. You just make adjustments in your life and establish a new normal, and deal with each day as it unfolds."
No one in the room understood the pain of Paxton and Ponder like Mary Beyers, American Gold Star Mother's First Vice-President and Nashville native.
"My son, Captain Joshua Byers, 3rd Armored Cavalry, died on July 23rd, 2003, in Iraq as a result of an improvised explosive device," said Beyers. "Four or maybe even five years later, I was up late one night searching for support groups and that's when I found American Gold Star Mothers."
Beyers said she immediately joined and shortly thereafter was asked to start a chapter for Middle Tennessee, which she did in January 2007.
"Before getting linked with SOS at Fort Campbell, which was about three years ago, it was very frustrating not to be informed," Beyers added. "We feel like we're back in the loop again."
That loop has been and will continue to be a major resource for family members connected to Gold Star -- truly an elite group of their own -- be they mothers, wives, husbands or children.
Whether to get involved or not isn't an option for these mothers.
"I'm already involved in Adopt-a-Soldier," said Paxton. "My son would have wanted me to honor him by honoring others."
Beyers said her greatest fear is that people will forget their loved ones who paid the ultimate price for freedom.
"We're trying to continue our sons' and daughters' legacy by helping others," she added.