Chaplains have the honor of serving Sailors, Marines, Coast Guardsmen and their families in many capacities. One assignment might involve deploying alongside Sailors and Marines who are voluntarily put in harm’s way, and then another tour, might involve being assigned ashore to support families whose Sailors and Marines are deployed.
Chaplains also have the sacred duty of caring for those who make the ultimate sacrifice, as well as the families they leave behind. Navy Chaplain Capt. Dale White shares his experience of working with the Gold Star Families program, which is dedicated to creating a support network for the families of fallen servicemembers.
During my year as Chaplain for Regimental Combat Team 8 in Fallujah, Iraq, sixty-seven Marines and Sailors made the ultimate sacrifice. While I prayed over each one, prior to their remains being airlifted home, I would also pray for the families who would soon be receiving the news from a Casualty Affairs Call Officer (CACO) and Chaplain. The mothers and fathers, spouses and children, CACOs and Chaplains, were foremost in my thoughts and prayers.
After returning home from Iraq, I had the honor of supporting Gold Star families in a way that I had never expected. It was April 2006, and the phone call remains ingrained in my mind. My supervisory chaplain called to ask me to coordinate an informal meeting for a group of surviving spouses. Leadership wanted a uniformed service member to be present to support them, but beyond that, the task was not clear. Would this be a grief group? Would this be a support group?
I went to the first meeting with a sense of uneasiness. My uneasiness was soon dispelled, when the surviving spouses shared with me what they were looking for. They were clear—they did not want a grief group or a Bible study. What they did want was a place to bond with others who were going through a similar loss, and they wanted a means and a person, to help them remain connected to their military family.
Over the years, I grew as much as the surviving spouses did. Some of the things that I learned from them are forever etched in my mind, and I was honored to advocate for them. On one occasion, a surviving spouse shared with me that, after her Marine spouse was killed, she felt like an “outcast” from her husband’s unit. She attended some family events, but felt awkward at being “alone.” She shared that she ran into a couple of spouses at the Exchange, who, in an uncomfortable conversation, expressed surprise at seeing her there. She inferred that, with her spouse gone, others felt she was no longer a part of the military community. It was a second loss for her—first her spouse, then her military family. There were many similar stories from the surviving spouses, so we set in place a permanent relationship between a garrison unit and the Surviving Spouses Support Group at Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune, where they could receive enduring support.
On another occasion, a spouse shared that, while shopping at the commissary, she had been asked to write the name of her spouse’s unit and his phone number on the check, despite the fact that her ID card clearly reflected A/D-DEC (deceased). She almost broke down in tears in front of the cashier. Defense Commissary Agency immediately issued a worldwide memo alerting their employees to exercise increased awareness and sensitivity towards ID cards and surviving spouses.
The care these spouses received from their military family was abundant and transformational. In fact, of the spouses that I supported, three had actually moved home to be near their families, only to move a second time to be near their military family. When asked, they all replied, “The military family understands us in some ways more deeply than our families do.”
The spouses, children, and families of those who have made the ultimate sacrifice are Gold Star families forever. There is no “closure” from the loss of their loved one. Their spouse, father, daughter or son is lost to that family forever. As a chaplain, I remember every family to whom I have delivered a casualty call, and with many of them, I still stay in touch as an “adopted” family member. It is a blessing and a sacred honor that I hold dear.
On this day of remembrance for Gold Star families, we owe it to them to embrace them and support them as long as they desire support, because they have also made the ultimate sacrifice in service to our country.