Honorable Disservice: An Inside Look at the Classifications That Divide Gold Star Families

September 27, 2020Joseph Andrew Lee
Section 60 Arlington National Cemetery

The sun rises over Section 60 of Arlington National Cemetery, Arlington, Virginia, Oct. 25, 2019. US Army photo by Elizabeth Fraser / Arlington National Cemetery.

WASHINGTON, DC — At the world headquarters of a major US military nonprofit, the father of deceased Marine Cpl. Nicholas Uzenski was introduced to a group of fundraisers as a “Gold Star” father. Three ladies huddled together in the same cubical stopped what they were doing, stood, and said hello. As he turned to leave, one of them blurted out, “Congratulations!”

“I wait for that every time,” said Bill Uzenski, shaking his head as he walked toward the elevators. “I guess it’s a natural response because we’re trained from elementary school to think that gold stars are an award of some kind.”

“From now on don’t introduce me like that,” he said. “People don’t get it. There’s so much wrong with that whole thing I don’t even know where to begin.”

Topping his list for most egregious gold star misunderstandings was a recent event for families of the fallen where he found himself at the side of a grieving mother who had recently lost her son. The question came up of how her son was killed, and Uzenski learned her son was a drunk driver who would still be in prison for manslaughter had he lived through the accident he caused.

“It blows my mind. To me, some of their kids would be disgusted. They’d say, ‘Mom, sit down. I didn’t earn that. It’s not the same thing.’ The ultimate sacrifice isn’t joining the military,” Uzenski said, visibly heated from the encounter. “It’s not dying in a car accident. The ultimate sacrifice is dying in combat, serving your country.”

Gold Star father Bill Uzenski
Gold Star father Bill Uzenski. His son, Nick, made the ultimate sacrifice in Afghanistan. Photo courtesy of Joseph Andrew Lee.

Since 1918, the federal government has recognized families that lose loved ones who were serving honorably on active duty. Over time the complexity of warfare has changed, and with it the criteria for honors bestowed upon families. The war on terror blurred previously simple conventions like “wartime” and “peacetime.” The signature wounds of those wars have been connected to death by suicide long after someone serves on active duty. Decisions to go to war by Congress, when they do happen, aren’t unilaterally supported by the American people like they used to be. Noticeably, unless you live on a military base, the red and white service flags no longer hang in every other American’s porch window. When the neighbor loses her son at war we aren’t all watching on as the blue star in her window turns gold. 

In the shadows of grief, there seems to be some prejudicial treatment going on that isn’t entirely unfounded. The Gold Star symbol — what started out as an honorable public gesture by a series of war-worn presidents and Congress — has developed into a hierarchical skirmish between grieving families over subjective ideals of honor and valor. The federal government, as well as the military community, cuts deep lines in the sand depending on how, where, and when a loved one died.

“There is a hierarchy, it seems, among Gold Star families,” said Bonnie Carroll, founder of Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS) and the widow of Army Gen. Tom Carroll, who died while serving as commander of the Alaska National Guard. After her husband’s aircraft went down on a peacetime mission, Carroll struggled to find resources to deal with her own grief. 

“It’s an uncomfortable subject,” said Carroll, “for families on one side whose loved ones were killed in the line of duty and then on the other those whose family members [died in other ways, especially if they] suffered psychologically and died from suicide years later as a civilian and veteran,” she said.

Bonnie Carroll, founder of TAPS
Bonnie Carroll, founder of TAPS and the widow of Army Gen. Tom Carroll. Photo courtesy of Joseph Andrew Lee.

The history of the Gold Star Symbolism

The gold star first came to symbolize families of the fallen after President Woodrow Wilson received a letter from a grieving mother who lost her son in the First World War. After receiving that letter he declared that mothers and widows of fallen servicemen should wear a gold star on their black mourning bands so that they could be easily identified — so that the public could share their condolences.

Several organizations honored the mothers of the First World War. The Gold Star Mothers of America, Corps No. 1, actually began through a fundraising effort to erect a memorial headstone for the grave of Pvt. Jewell Howard Edwards, an orphan and a soldier who died of pneumonia while at home on leave.

World War I Gold Star mothers
Gold Star mothers from the First World War. Chicago History Museum photo.

Families hanging a service flag in their window during wartime were authorized to sew a “gilted” star over the blue star that symbolized their loved one. Service flags were a common sight for the first half of the 20th century, when American families were proud to stand behind the fight, but since the Vietnam War it has become much less popular to advertise having a family member in the service.

After World War II, President Franklin D. Roosevelt once again approved the mourning band for wear. In the years following the war, Congress took the honor one step further and created the Gold Star lapel button to identify only the families of those who gave their lives in the actual fight itself. Public Law 80-306 authorized a small, circular gold button with a star on a purple backdrop for the purpose of publicly identifying the immediate next of kin of those who lost their lives while fighting. Listed as an official military decoration in Title 10 of the US Code, the pin was to be issued to families under very strict guidelines strikingly similar to those for the Purple Heart Medal.

service flag sheet music
Sheet music relating to the service flag tradition that started in World War I.

That pin was the first and only clear distinction made between the actual “war dead” and others who died from miscellaneous causes while on active duty. A hierarchy was born with the Gold Star lapel button, and many believe that’s the way it should be.

But if that didn’t create enough confusion, the issue was even further muddled by a second gold star button, known as the lapel button for next of kin of deceased personnel. This pin —which also has a gold star on it — was designed by the Department of the Navy and documented in Title 32 of the US Code in 1973. Not the product of public law, the pin seems to have been created by a single branch of the military in an attempt to fill what might have been seen as an unfortunate void left behind by the creation of the Gold Star lapel button. This pin was to be issued to the next of kin of armed services members who lost their lives in situations not involving combat but while serving honorably on active duty or while assigned in an Army Reserve or Army National Guard unit in a drill status. 

Gold Star pin
Though the official designation of Gold Star Wives Day (April 5) is relatively new, the gold star has officially been recognized as a symbol of loss since 1918. Throughout the World War I, families would hang blue service stars in their windows to indicate that their loved ones were serving in the war effort. By 1918, it became common practice to pin or sew a gold star over the blue star to indicate that their service member had died. President Wilson also authorized mothers to wear a gold star on the traditional black mourning band to signify their loss was war related in 1918. US Army photo.

Some family members whose losses are combat related, like Uzenski, believe the creation of the second pin undermines what the Gold Star lapel button was intended to honor.

“We’re outnumbered like four to one,” he said, “so you can’t really say anything. You still have a grieving mother there, but when nobody says anything it comes off as acceptance.”

Not recognized at all are the families who have lost loved ones from the psychological wounds of war. Families of veterans killed by PTSD-related suicide — shadowed by the unknown numbers of additional family members who lose their consequential battle with grief and depression — are not recognized with any sort of lapel pin or decoration to alert the public to their grief.

Who is being honored and why?

Once a family member is presented with the Gold Star lapel button, the service member’s name is added to the very official-looking (but privately run) Gold Star Family Registry. The families on this list, like the Uzenski family, have a very valid reason to believe their loved one’s sacrifice was indeed special. But this begs the question: Was the gold star intended to honor the service member for something they did, or the family for something they did? Or was it intended to honor the family for something the service member did?

Dawn Seif is the widow of a decorated Marine Raider, Staff Sgt. Andrew Seif, who was lost when the UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter he was riding on crashed off the coast of Florida. He was a Silver Star recipient, the USO Marine of the Year, and no stranger to combat.

“My husband was training. He was at work,” said Seif, who should be surrounded by so many other grieving families but instead feels little connection to them. From that one accident, six families of battle-tested special operations Marines who fought honorably on the front lines of the war on terror will not be included in events meant to honor “Gold Star” families.

Dawn Seif, widow of Marine Staff Sgt. Andrew Seif
Dawn Seif, widow of Marine Staff Sgt. Andrew Seif, who was lost when the UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter he was riding on crashed off the coast of Florida. Photo courtesy of Joseph Andrew Lee.

“Just because he didn’t get shot down overseas it doesn’t make his death any less important,” she said. “He’s gone … I have a kid without a dad, I’m a wife without a husband. It’s the same thing to me.”

Peggy Buryj’s son Jesse was killed — according to the government — by international friendly fire in combat. By some of the most conservative interpretations of the gold star classification issue, Buryj’s situation would qualify him for the Purple Heart Medal and therefore his family should be included within even the smallest circles of Gold Star families. Sadly, Peggy still encounters prejudice from some of the “more legitimate” Gold Star families.

“My son’s blood was not spilt because of the enemy,” she said during an interview with CBS News. “He believed in honor, integrity, duty, loyalty … how can I be in there with other Gold Star families when I’m the black sheep? I really don’t know if he deserved this.”

Bonnie Carroll is the widow of Alaska National Guard Gen. Tom Carroll, who died when his plane went down during a routine, peacetime training mission. Her frustration with finding appropriate resources to deal with her grief led to the creation of one of the most recognized nonprofits for grieving families, the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors. 

“What seems to be getting lost in the whole debate,” said Bonnie Carroll, “is that we’re drawing lines between memories of people who spilled the same blood for the same reasons and are all no longer with us. All of their sacrifices are honorable, and all of their families should feel like they actually did make a sacrifice.”

TAPS, like most “gold star” organizations, has a policy of inclusion, supporting all the families of every fallen active duty service member or veteran in any situation which comes their way. But it’s not always just about having resources, say families.

According to Carroll and other marginalized families, most of the prejudicial treatment they encounter doesn’t come from the federal government or from programs or services offered by nonprofits. Most of it comes directly from the other Gold Star families, with all of the best intentions.

But consider for a second the many perfectly honorable situations that would disqualify someone from receiving a Purple Heart Medal (and according to the matching criteria for the Gold Star lapel pin would disqualify a family from being a “Gold Star” family.) 

Gold Star father Tom Dolphin
Gold Star father Tom Dolphin lost his son in Afghanistan. Photo courtesy of Joseph Andrew Lee.

You could freeze to death or die of heatstroke. If that happens while at war, too bad, fella. Your truck could roll over; you could drown; a helicopter could accidentally land on you. You could fall overboard and be eaten by sharks; you could be exposed to chemicals your own government used as a weapon and die from it years later; or your parachute could simply fail to open. As long as one of those things doesn’t happen to you and the enemy actually gets you first, the surviving family would receive the Gold Star lapel button and they would be a “real” Gold Star family. The distinction seems arbitrary to a lot of people. 

But, Uzenski points out, there are situations where the Purple Heart Medal criteria do not apply, but where he and other families would still consider their families to be part of the “real” Gold Star group.

“There are extenuating circumstances,” he said. “Like someone who was in combat, saw their buddies die … have that survivor’s guilt … it’s haunting them … to me that’s a casualty of war.”

The Suicide Issue

They tell us that suicide is the greatest piece of cowardice … that suicide is wrong; when it is quite obvious that there is nothing in the world to which every man has a more unassailable title than to his own life and person.” — German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer

Suicide carries with it a particularly heavy stigma that seems to be magnified tenfold in the military. 

There are the obvious religious implications associated with the “mortal sin” of suicide — but it remains so taboo that the Uniform Code of Military Justice still actually prosecutes the occasional suicide attempt and sometimes even seeks to punish that act with dishonorable discharge. This tragedy leads many in the military to consider the act itself to be dishonorable and therefore unworthy of “Gold Star” recognition.

That is a notion the American Legion, for one, has gone on record looking to change.

“If you succeed at committing suicide [while on active duty] you are often treated as a hero by grieving friends and family, but if you fail at suicide, you could be treated to a court-martial. This must change,” said American Legion National Commander James E. Koutz in a recent article calling for the military to re-evaluate the Uniform Code of Military Justice.

Especially amid an epidemic of military suicide, one would think it to be a logical fallacy to threaten to punish someone who is already depressed and considering suicide. Yet the practice continues.

“The Military is marching forward with one foot and backward with the other,” wrote Kyndra Miller Rotunda in a University of Massachusetts Law Review article titled “Self-Inflicted Wounds: How Military Regulations Prejudice Service Members.”

“‘Safe and positive messages’ addressing suicide obviously fall on deaf ears when they are still joined with the unmistakable threat of criminal punishment,” she concluded in her essay. “While a soldier injured by shrapnel blast has no reason to fear punishment for his wound of war, his PTSD-stricken comrade-in-arms is likely confessing to a crime when he tells his psychiatrist about his suicidal behavior. … Because health record privacy protections do not apply to the suicidal, that admission could be shared with his command and used against him at trial.”

Navy Petty Officer Marta Martin lost her son while he was serving honorably in the US Army. Specialist Lamonte Smith was scheduled to deploy on his first combat deployment to Afghanistan just weeks after he died of suicide. She knew her son was terrified of the upcoming deployment and admits that his fear may in fact have had something to do with his death. Still, she says, that doesn’t change the fact that it was war in some part that killed him. 

Gold Star mother Navy Petty Officer Marta Martin
Navy Petty Officer Marta Martin lost her son, Specialist Lamonte Smith, while he was serving honorably in the Army. Photo courtesy of Joseph Andrew Lee.

“If it wasn’t for the military they wouldn’t be in the position they are in,” she said. “Some say ‘suicide is selfish,’ but you’d think differently if it happened to you.”

During the first holiday season after the loss of her son, she was invited to a ball where she was to be honored alongside other Gold Star mothers. At the last minute, however, someone realized their “mistake” and her name was dropped from the honor roll. 

She sat alone at her table and cried.

“When a mom is sitting there with no son during Christmas it doesn’t matter how he went — he’s gone,” she said. “I’ve met mothers who are angry with their sons because of this. You could just tell. It frustrates me when people are quick to judge.”

Betty Wright lost her son Shawn to suicide while he was at home on medical leave from basic training. She doesn’t consider herself a Gold Star mother, even though the US Army issued her the lapel button for next of kin of deceased personnel to honor the loss of her son. 

The problem comes in when the public wants to honor Gold Star mothers in Wright’s town, and everyone knows Betty proudly wears her pin. To the general public she might seem to meet the criteria of a Gold Star mother — but come to find out she doesn’t even ascribe herself as one. 

“The pin I wear is a gold pin and in the center of it is a star,” she said, “so naturally it’s easy to look at both of them and say ‘Well they are both gold star pins.’ Well, no. They’re both pins. Only one of those pins was issued by Congress to honor families of the fallen. My son’s sacrifice, while honorable to me, is not the same as giving one’s life in combat.”

At the real heart of the suicide issue are those families whom Uzenski described. For the 22-plus veterans a day who lose their struggle after coming back home with invisible wounds of war, scarred and haunted by what they experienced in combat, and for their next of kin — how is their eventual suicide not considered, as AUSA, the Association of the United States Army, words it, “wounds sustained in theater”?

Kathy Smith lost her son, Sgt. Corey Smith, to suicide, six years after he was medically discharged from the Army. She claims her son took his own life after watching the territory he fought for in Iraq — the territory his friends lost their lives and limbs fighting for — fall into the hands of ISIS.

Kathy Smith
Kathy Smith. Photo courtesy of Joseph Andrew Lee.

When he was separated from the Army, Smith was diagnosed with PTSD. His parents say he was given drugs and mostly left to the responsibility of the nearest branch of the Department of Veterans Affairs in Anchorage, Alaska. When ISIS began reclaiming territory in Iraq, the Smith family noticed Corey becoming increasingly irate and “hostile” online, regularly posting angry “rants” on Facebook about government indifference — often blaming President Barack Obama for pulling troops out of Iraq to fulfill a campaign promise.   

When he died suddenly by suicide in 2012, his family received no acknowledgement at all from the federal government for their sacrifice. There is no pin or flag or Gold Star button to help Americans identify and mourn with the Smith family. 

“It’s like he never existed,” said his mother, Kathy. 

“It makes no sense,” said his father, Tim. “We basically lost the last six years of Corey’s life because once he returned he was never the same again. There’s no doubt in our mind that his combat experience and the resulting betrayal, as he saw it, resulted in his death.”

Corey left behind a wife and a young daughter. He was just one semester away from finishing his degree in psychology to help other veterans suffering from PTSD.

Sgt. Corey Smith
Sgt. Corey Smith. Photo courtesy of Joseph Andrew Lee.

“What a beautiful pin! Where can I get one?”

“Yes, I’ve heard someone ask that, believe it or not,” said Donna Engeman, Gold Star widow and director of the Army’s Survivor Outreach Services. “I had a command sergeant major ask me once if I really thought the soldier who died in a motorcycle accident died as worthy a death as my husband who died in combat in Iraq.”

Engeman, who encounters mothers and family members on a daily basis in her job, believes the Gold Star buttons create an unnecessary hierarchy of honor and valor and that their strict criteria overcomplicate a very sensitive matter. She believes the symbol of the gold star represents much more than the narrow criteria required to receive the Purple Heart Medal. She believes it is too big and too important a symbol to be reduced to infighting over idealistic definitions of valor. 

“I don’t get why there has to be a hierarchy of honor in death among soldiers,” she said. “I think this goes back to how the military sees death, as if it’s Sparta and the Peloponnesian War — they all want to be one of the 300 Spartans and die heroic deaths.”

Bonnie Carroll, who recently received the Presidential Medal of Freedom for her work with Gold Star families, agrees.

“It’s hard for me to imagine a family wishing to join the Gold Star community for nefarious reasons,” said Carroll. “Inclusion rather than exclusion might help spread awareness of the sacrifice all Gold Star families make when the country goes to war while also growing the support group’s base.”

At the end of the day in the military, there are rules and protocols for everything, up to and including the honor it bestows upon death. Both Engeman and Uzenski have good reason to be proud of their loved one’s sacrifice, as their family members truly represent the “ultimate sacrifice” made for the sustainment of our American ideals. Congress did vote to identify these families separately for that type of sacrifice with a distinct lapel button. And so it is that way. 

But these rules can change and have been changed before. The real questions we should be asking are: Is it really entirely necessary to extend military honors with strict qualifying criteria, such as those aligned with the Purple Heart Medal, to the devices we give to surviving family members? Is what is gained worth what is lost? And if we gain more than what we lose in doing so, why aren’t we recognizing casualties of war after they leave active duty?

“At all of our national cemeteries — at Arlington — we have the same headstones,” said Carroll. “Regardless if it’s a private who died in a motorcycle accident, a sergeant who died by suicide, a Medal of Honor recipient or a combat loss — we honor those who serve and those who die equally.”

Editor’s Note: This article was first published independently by Joseph Andrew Lee in May 2016. 

Joseph Andrew Lee
Joseph Andrew Lee
Coffee or Die is Black Rifle Coffee Company’s online lifestyle magazine. Launched in June 2018, the magazine covers a variety of topics that generally focus on the people, places, or things that are interesting, entertaining, or informative to America’s coffee drinkers — often going to dangerous or austere locations to report those stories.
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