When a person decides to join the United States military, they are choosing to commit their lives to 7 core values: loyalty, duty, respect, selfless service, honor, integrity, and personal courage. In other words, they are prepared to make protecting the country their primal instinct.
However, there is no choice involved with leaving behind loved ones. While people in the service make remarkable sacrifices to serve millions of American citizens, so, too, do their families and friends. Wives, in particular, forfeit their relationships with servicemen for the greater good, knowing there is a chance they will never see them again – and in some heartbreaking cases, they do not.
Although we don’t always consider or recognize the struggles that families of active – but especially deceased – servicemen go through, tomorrow is a day dedicated to acknowledging just that: The overlooked sacrifices that veterans’ survivors make for our nation.
Paying Tribute to Millions of Gold Stars
Organized by the Gold Star Wives of America, Inc. (GSW), a nonprofit group formed in 1945 to support the spouses and children of fallen service members, Gold Star Wives Day is a day of recognition. On April 5, GSW salutes the widows and widowers of veterans who gave their lives in service, whether through service-related injuries, illnesses, or disabilities.
The day dates back to World War I, when military families would fix a gold star to the traditional blue star banner displayed in the home to represent their loved one’s death. Today, Gold Star Wives Day denotes a critical time to recognize the needs, concerns, and welfare of military families left behind. It is also a time for surviving spouses and their children to come together in support of each other, as “only a service spouse understands the sorrow and problems of another service spouse,” says GSW.
“The sacrifices of a Gold Star wife reach beyond losing the person she considers a life partner – it is a loss of goals and expectations, it impacts her identity within the Army culture, and it completely changes the path of her future,” said Donna Engeman, Survivor Outreach Services Program Manager of U.S. Army Installation Management Command. “The importance of Gold Star Wives Day is that it brings acknowledgment to and honors the many sacrifices of these incredibly courageous and resilient women.”
GSW has local chapters all over the United States, whose 10,000-plus members attend meetings and sponsor activities. The organization also distributes regional and national newsletters about changes in legislation concerning military survivors, provides resources and engagement opportunities, and holds Region Conferences every year throughout March and April.
These initiatives, plus this special awareness day, foster hope among military families and honor the memory of those who made the ultimate sacrifice: dying for our country.
How So Many Tragic Deaths Came to Be
Sadly, this sacrifice is even broader in scope than widely believed. Millions of servicemen have lost their lives in combat, but millions more died from wounds or illnesses.
Illness has always been a historically prominent cause of death. For context, in the Civil War, for every 3 soldiers killed in battle, 5 others were killed by a disease.
Of course, back then, medicine was still in primitive stages and unable to treat illnesses that could be easily cured now. But even in the 20th century, veterans had diseases that we still don’t fully understand today. Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which can lead to suicide, for example; or asbestos-related diseases, such as mesothelioma.
Asbestos, a carcinogenic mineral, used to be prevalent in all 5 armed service branches: the Navy, Marines, Coast Guard, Army, and Air Force. For many years, the substance was thought to be an inexpensive and effective method for insulation or heat and fire resistance. Such qualities, unfortunately made asbestos abundant in military bases and shipyards.
Asbestos is the only known cause of mesothelioma – an aggressive, lethal cancer with a very poor prognosis – and asbestos-containing product manufacturers kept this fact hidden for years. As such, the U.S. military accounts for a third of mesothelioma deaths.
Because mesothelioma symptoms can take up to 50 years to materialize, the deadly cancer can come as a nasty shock to those affected. New cases are only now surfacing for Gold Star families of veterans who served decades ago. Because a cure has not yet been found, these families need all the love, support, and justice for this undeserved trauma they can get.
The lives of those who lost loved ones in service are changed forever. There are many people who are unaware of what it means to be a Gold Star wife or family member, but it’s a conversation worth having in every community. The greater the awareness of misunderstood reasons for so much loss of life, the better.