How We Should Actually Be Treating Gold Star Families

It's time to talk about the families who lost loved ones overseas.

A Grain of Saul is a weekly column that digs into some of the biggest issues we face as a nation and as an international community in search of reliable data, realistic solutions, and — most importantly — hope.  

During World War I, American families often hung flags outside their homes. The flags had blue stars on them to indicate the family had a relative serving in the military, and if the family lost their loved one at war, their star would be changed from blue to gold.



That tradition eventually evolved into the moniker "Gold Star families" — a term we use to describe the surviving loved ones who lost a relative killed in action. Since President Trump took office in January, 43 new families have become Gold Star households. Nobody seems to know how many Gold Star families there currently are, but at least 6,000 US service members have died in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars alone.

That means there are more than enough Gold Star families walking amongst us that we should take some some time to pause and consider how we as a nation should treat them and how we should speak about the loved ones they've lost. Recent political controversies seem to illustrate how callous we've become with the casualties of war. 

For starters, your opinions, political or otherwise, should not stop you from sympathizing with the families of soldiers who have been killed in action. Daughters, sons, parents and spouses are being left with gaping holes in their lives. That you've decided the cause their loved ones pursued isn't worthwhile is irrelevant to whether or not you can or should be compassionate to what they are going through.

Instead of posturing about your political beliefs, you should start by offering your condolences. And regardless of whether an armed service member died fighting a war you support, the family left behind is due a debt of gratitude and respect. 

Along those same lines, when remembering those we've lost, we should try to remember more than what they did while wearing the uniform. Perhaps few stories exemplify that more than the death of Sgt. La David Terrence Johnson, whose family has been embroiled in controversy after criticism mounted against the White House's response to his death. While many news junkies could recite the details of President Trump's call with Johnson's wife Myeshia, few know that the couple knew each other since they were 6 years old. But we should. We should take the time to meditate on the lives fallen soldiers lived so we can recognize in more honest terms the sacrifice they made. We should all know that La David was just 25 years old. That he was known for how he'd skillfully wheelie around the neighborhood on his bicycle, earning him the nickname "Wheelie King 305." That Myeshia is pregnant with their third child and second girl. 

But even as we honor Gold Star families and their lost loved ones, we should do our best to keep them out of the spotlight unless they want to step into it. Some families, like the Khan family, entered into the public eye because they felt they had an important message to share. Others may not feel the same, and they should be granted the same privacy to mourn that any family receives when they are faced with the unthinkable. 

Giving them privacy doesn't mean being passive. We can do more as a nation and as individuals to help Gold Star families. The Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA) suggests ensuring "that spouses of fallen service members are not penalized with loss of next-of-kin status, and monetary, education, healthcare and other legal rights and benefits if they re-marry." It wants to improve training for casualty assistance officers, eliminate programs that reduce benefits from the Department of Defense and Veterans Affairs for Gold Star families, and create a family advocate within the Department of the Army to help promote the priorities of family members of the fallen. 

"It's about what are you doing now to help those that are left behind who have to struggle day-to-day," Sheila Murphy, a Gold Star mother, said on MSNBC earlier this year. 

Other organizations like the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS) can offer support for Gold Star families as well, and we should continue to support funding for them. These organizations, and your own effort to comfort and empathize with those who have suffered the ultimate loss, can do far more to help a Gold Star family than a phone call or letter. 

And it's about time we understood that.

For more, you can follow @Ike_Saul on Twitter.

Cover photo: Shutterstock / David Kay

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