2018 9News Denver Interview


Gold Star Parents

By Amron Gravett – Colorado Country Life Magazine (http://www.coloradocountrylife.coop/gold-star-parents/)

Remembering lives sacrificed for our country

“Our story is one of deep, unthinkable sadness shouldered by the proudest of hearts. It is a story of the individual and the collective and it finds us alone, together. It is the story of those who have lost their children in war. For it is this story of loss that creates a need for a gathering, a gathering of wounded hearts that brings surviving parents and grandparents together. On the last weekend in September, families will come together in Steamboat Springs for the 11th annual Colorado Gold Star Parent’s Weekend.”

The loss of life during military campaigns is sometimes hard to fathom. Since the Revolutionary War in 1775, more than 1.3 million American soldiers have died in U.S. wars or military conflicts.1 Between 2003 and 2012, nearly 4,500 Americans were killed in Operation Iraqi Freedom. There have been 2,300 casualties in the war in Afghanistan since 2001. Americans have lost nearly 6,800 soldiers in this most recent war on terror.2

The families of these soldiers endure this loss and its accompanying grief in profound and vivid ways, becoming trauma survivors themselves. As the Survivor Outreach Services of the U.S. Army states, “We know that there are no words or actions that can ever fully solace you in your loss, for there is no greater calling than to serve one’s nation with honor and dignity. For us, there is no greater duty than to support the families of those who have died in service to our nation.”3

Locally, additional support comes from others who are enduring the same loss, Colorado’s Gold Star Parents. The gold star has a long history as a symbol of sacrifice. During World War I and II, families hung handmade red and white banners in their windows so that their neighbors would know their loved ones were in active military service. Each blue star on the flag represented a family member on active duty. If a loved one died, the blue star would be covered with a gold star.

The Colorado Gold Star Parents gather the last weekend of September each year to honor all of the military servicemen and servicewomen who lost their lives in military service since 2000. Those honored were not all killed in action or terrorism incidents. Some died after returning home from wounds obtained during their service such as traumatic brain injuries or rapidly growing cancers. Some are deaths from training or car accidents. Some are suicides.

Sadness Shared

Losing a loved one leads to a delicate process of grieving and regrowth. There is phenomenal strength of character that develops in a parent surviving his or her child and often weathering these emotions presents an emotional language all its own. It is often heard that it is not so much about healing as about management.

The deaths of these children are forcing these families to re-create their lives after loss. They do not seek to simply “move on” but rather to remember, honor and respect their children’s lives because there will always be a hole in their hearts.

“We’re not a group of people who just can’t ‘get over it.’ We survived a death that really changed us. All it takes is just learning a new way to love [them],” Gold Star child Jennifer Denard poignantly stated as she talked about her experience losing her father during the Vietnam War.

Bereaved parents often feel hopeless and isolated in their grief until they find others who are experiencing a similar loss. Although there are many groups online, there is no greater example of the importance of togetherness than in the Colorado Gold Star Parents Weekend. During that weekend, these parents and families embrace companionship and use empathy in a powerful way. Listening to others’ grief processes provides a path for forging a new life. Harnessing the medicinal power of friendship, the event extends a lifeline to these grieving families so that they don’t feel quite so alone.

Honoring Heroes

The first Colorado Gold Star Mothers Weekend was organized in 2003 and gathered 28 families in Estes Park. This fall the 11th annual gathering will honor more than 220 fallen heroes with nearly 100 families in attendance at the Steamboat Springs event. The Colorado Blue Star Mothers, part of the national congressionally chartered veteran service organization, raises money all year from private and corporate sponsors to fund the event.

The weekend attendees come from all over the state. They come from the rural towns of Manzanola and Dolores and the urban centers of Denver and Colorado Springs. They even come from as far as Utah and New Mexico because there are no comparable events in those states.

They come to speak about their children, to say their names aloud, to share their children’s stories, both those of their lives and of their deaths. It provides a safe place where these parents and grandparents don’t need to worry about making someone else uncomfortable by speaking about their deep sadness or talking about their deceased children. Everyone else understands how they are feeling.
Gold Star label button.

The Blue Star Mothers of Durango organizes the event for the state’s six chapters. Janna Schaefer, co-founder of the first Colorado chapter of the Blue Star Mothers, is herself a Gold Star wife. She is filled with a sense of honor to support these families and help them in their own grief journey. She also works as a mentor for TAPS, which is the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors, and is a model example of healing through service to others.

“During this healing weekend, the Blue Star Moms provide information, resources, references, counselors, speakers, workshops and anything that will assist the parents on their grief journey,” asserts the Blue Star Mothers of Durango. “All are thankful for a place where they can freely express their grief, pride, joys and sorrows. They can speak about their children and honor their lives where everyone understands.”

A slide show of the honored servicemen and servicewomen is shown during a special ceremony while each family lights a memorial candle. There are workshops and speakers on such topics as Iraq, new grief, suicide and traumatic brain injuries. There is a Hall of Heroes exhibit displaying the photographs and biographies of the Fallen Heroes of Colorado.

A Tradition that Continues

Grace Darling Siebold founded the American Gold Star Mothers after losing her son in World War I. She felt that self-contained grief was self-destructive, and she dedicated her time and efforts to supporting other mothers who also lost their sons during the war. The organization was founded in 1928 and chartered by Congress. Still today, they are committed to “perpetuate the memory of those whose lives were sacrificed in our wars.”

By presidential proclamation, Gold Star Mother’s Day is the last Sunday in September. It is a “public expression of the love, sorrow and reverence of the people of the United States for the American Gold Star Mothers.” It has recognized the mothers of fallen heroes since June 23, 1936.

In 1947, Congress passed the U.S. Code (Section 1126, Title 10) issuing a gold lapel pin to widows, parents and next of kin of those who died while in action in one of the armed services.

In 2011, First Lady Michelle Obama and Jill Biden launched the Joining Forces initiative to engage communities in supporting returning troops and their families.

“We wanted to make sure that never again would someone have to ask the question, what is a Gold Star family, and what does that sacrifice mean? We all should know,” the First Lady stated in her speech.
As Gen. George W. Casey Jr. stated, “One of the things I think any survivor wants to know and feel is that their loved one’s sacrifice isn’t going to be forgotten.”

This is the legacy of the Colorado Gold Star Parents Weekend and of the work of the Colorado Blue Star Mothers. As Schaefer put it, “We hope they walk away from the weekend with a sense that they’ll be OK. That there are others walking right beside them.”

Below: The American flag is draped over the casket as a pall during military funeral services. In a moving tribute, the flag is then carefully folded 13 times and offered to the family of the deceased as a symbol of appreciation for their loved one’s honorable service to this nation. Photos by Amron Gravett

Amron Gravett is an indexer and writer from a military family. She lovingly dedicates this article to her grandfather, Sylvester James Skowronski. He served in the U.S. Navy in World War II and passed away on July 17, 2014.






  • Gold Star parents who lost child in military service to gather in Durango

    By Ann Butler Herald Staff Writer | Thursday, Sept. 22, 2016 4:14 PM (https://durangoherald.com/articles/19452-gold-star-parents-who-lost-child-in-military-service-to-gather-in-durango

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    They served in the Army, Navy, Marine Corps, Air Force, National Guard, Reserves. Most were young, and all left family and friends remembering someone full of life who wanted to serve his or her country.

    If you go

    Most Gold Star Weekend events are private to give families time to be together. But two events Sunday are open to the public:
    9 to 11 a.m. at Rotary Park, a nondenominational service will be held. The Gold

    Read More

    What to say

    “I’ve done a lot of reading about how people cope with other people’s loss,” Pat Stone said about how to speak with the Gold Star families in Durango this weekend. “They tend to be very uncomfortable and

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    On Friday, Durango will begin hosting more than 60 Colorado families for a Gold Star weekend, a time to remember, to grieve and to laugh about their children who have died since 2000 while serving in the military.

    The cause of death varies – some died during military action in Iraq or Afghanistan, some in training accidents, others in car crashes or because of cancer, and some were casualties of war in another way, dying by suicide after coming home and struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder.

    “It’s a very exclusive club that never wants new members,” said Cortez resident Harold Geer, whose son, George, died in Ramadi, Iraq, in 2005 at the age of 27. “We’ve all shared the same loss. One minute we’re laughing and telling stories about how foolish our children could be, the next moment we’re in tears.”

    It was Durango’s Blue Star Mothers who had the idea to hold the statewide weekend more than a decade ago, and members have had a major hand in organizing ever since. The weekend was held in Estes Park for several years before moving to different parts of the state. This is the first time it is taking place in Durango.

    Jana Schaefer, who is a Gold Star wife, coordinates the event with the help of other Gold Star and Blue Star Mothers, who either currently have or have had children serving in the military. Schaefer’s husband died in 1995, leaving her with five children aged 9 months to 9 years.

    “I remember saying I was a Gold Star wife to someone, and she said, cool, what did you do to get that?” Schaefer said. “I realized then that people don’t know what it means.”

    A number of families in the Four Corners will be attending the weekend’s activities, which include meals, workshops and socializing time along with a nondenominational service for the public Sunday.

    “The weekend has brought comfort and solace to me,” Geer said, “and I hope I can return it. I never forget this means something.”

    Every family has a story to tell.

    Pat Stone’s son, Brandon Stone, died after returning from Iraq at the age of 24. He grew up in Bayfield.

    “He was happy doing what he did,” she said, “and he was proud to serve his country.”

    For Jill Williams, her son William McCotter’s death was a shock after he returned safely from tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, where he guarded active radiation sites. Shortly after he earned his wings to be a Blackhawk helicopter pilot, “Billy” was diagnosed, six years ago Friday, with gastric cancer. He died three months later at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., at the age of 26.

    “He’s buried in Arlington (National Cemetery),” she said. “One great thing about the bond formed by Gold Star families is if someone’s going to Arlington because their child is also buried there, they’ll ask where’s Billy’s grave. They’ll leave a rose, a rock or maybe a flag, so he’s remembered.”

    Donald Jackson graduated from Durango High School in May 2001 and enlisted in the Army National Guard a few weeks after 9/11. Three days after completing his training at the beginning of June 2002, he volunteered as part of his unit to stand guard overnight in areas where people had been evacuated because of the Missionary Ridge Fire. Four days after completing the guard duty, he was killed in a car crash on his way to Cortez after falling asleep at the wheel. He was 19.

    “He was exhausted,” his mother, Cheryl Jackon, said. “But that’s what he wanted to do, especially in his hometown. It changed the course of our lives forever.”




  • 'Grief has a really sneaky way of blindsiding you,' says mom of fallen soldier

    By Michael de Yoanna Sep 26, 2014

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    (Audio: Silvia Buoniconti talks to Ryan Warner)


    Army Chief Warrant Officer Frank Buoniconti and his helicopter in Afghanistan.

    (Photo: Courtesy of Silvia Buoniconti)

    More than 6,800 U.S. troops have died in combat since the 9/11 terrorist attacks. But not Silvia Buoniconti’s son, Frank Buoniconti, a chief warrant officer in the Army.


    Though her son, Army Chief Warrant Officer Frank Buoniconti, saw combat in his several tours of Iraq and Afghanistan, he lost his life stateside. He was flying a helicopter on Dec. 12, 2011, during a nighttime exercise at Washington state’s Joint Base Lewis-McChord when another chopper collided with his.

    Frank Buoniconti died with three other aviators that day.

    Silvia Buoniconti remembers receiving the news in the middle of the night, at exactly 3:57 a.m. She and her husband awoke when they heard the sound of the garage door at their Colorado Springs home opening. When they went to see what was going on, their other son was there to share the news that no parents want to hear.

    With the loss of her son, Buoniconti became a Gold Star mom. The organization -- Gold Star Mothers -- traces its roots to the World War I era, uniting mothers whose sons are killed in military service, represented by a white banner with a red border and a gold star. This weekend dozens of families from around Colorado will gather in Steamboat Springs to “freely express their grief, pride, joys, and sorrows” in the annual Gold Star Parents weekend.

    “We all share our experiences and how we were trying to get through this difficult time and try to help each other,” says Buoniconti, who is president of the Gold Star Mothers Pikes Peak Chapter in Colorado Springs.

    Gold Star parents often remember their lost loved ones by hanging gold star banners at home. Some display bumper stickers. Buoniconti wears a gold star pin. She says some people admire the pin, but, she notes, don’t know what it signifies though the country has been involved in two major wars for more than a decade. When people ask, sometimes she finds it difficult to talk about.


    Frank Buoniconti in Iraq.

    (Photo: Courtesy of Silvia Buoniconti)

    “Just like every Gold Star Mother, if you have a good day, you gently explain what it means and why you’re wearing it,” she says. “If you’re having a bad day, you could simply say, ‘I lost my child,’ and leave it at that.”


    Her son, a decorated soldier who died at the age of 36, left behind a family of his own -- a wife who was his high school sweetheart and three children.

    Buoniconti celebrates her son’s memory in a number of ways, including knitting hats and scarves.

    “I wrap them up and then I bring it either to the homeless shelter or to a homeless clinic downtown and have them distribute them to the people that they think most need it as a Christmas present in his honor,” Buoniconti says.

    She adds that on holidays and anniversaries she expects to be most sad about losing her son. Yet, that’s not always true.

    “Grief has a really sneaky way of blindsiding you when you least expect it,” she says.

    She can become overwhelmed suddenly during a typical day, like on a trip to the grocery store when she noticed the Italian cream soda that her son always liked.

    “All I could do was run out of the store at a fast pace without actually breaking into a run with tears running down my face,” she says.

    Buoniconti comes from a military family. Her father stormed a beach in Normandy, France, during World War II -- and lived. Her husband and her living son both served in the military, and experienced war, as well.

    Buoniconti says after the news of her son’s death, she had to fight the Army for answers -- the paperwork that explained exactly how her son died. It’s a common story for military parents and spouses (see, for example, Colorado Matters’ story recent about the lingering questions surrounding the death of Colorado bandleader and Army Maj. Glenn Miller during World War II).


    Frank Buoniconti in Afghanistan.

    Gold Star Mothers, Buoniconti adds, are not just the mothers of children who died in combat or training for combat. Many, she says, lost their sons or daughters to suicide after they returned home with post-traumatic stress or brain injuries sustained from their experiences in battle.


    “Those are invisible wounds that you cannot see,” she says.

    Buoniconti fought to change the policy around Colorado's license plate that remembers fallen servicemembers. Prior to her getting involved, to get the plate a person must have been immediately related to a servicemember who died in the line of duty while in a combat zone.

    Buoniconti tracked down Gov. John Hickenlooper at an event and personally handed him a letter, asking him to read it when he had a chance. The letter said that servicemembers like her son who died training should also be eligible for the plate. The governor called Buoniconti the next morning and said he agreed. Changes to the law were approved by the Assembly and signed by the governor earlier this year.

    In 2015, the new license plates will be available.

    “A whole group of us moms and wives will be at the DMV on Jan. 2, as soon as they open, to request our license plates,” Buoniconti says.