In 2013, I wrote a story about how death benefits would not be paid to families who had lost their children in the Afghanistan war — families which, overnight, had become Gold Star families — because the government shutdown, then in place, meant there were no funds to fulfill this national obligation. America failed those serving it — and their relatives.
I mentioned the story to several people, and one of them told me it was very sad. But “this is what they signed up for,” they said. The idea shocked me. Because if you spend time around folks in uniform, you will know this: People don’t sign up to die. They sign up to serve. Knowing the risk that comes with putting your life on the line isn’t the same as raising your hand to not come home.
My shock at the statement gave way to resignation. And in the years reporting my book “Ashley’s War,” I had the privilege of spending time with a Gold Star family as it learned to live alongside its loss. I started to notice the things educated people in elite villages like Palo Alto and Washington felt comfortable saying about service members and how removed the reality of Fayetteville, North Carolina, or Columbus, Georgia, felt from so much of America.
Here’s the truth: The idea that people “know what they signed up for” is simply one more symptom of a nation so removed from its wars that it makes superheroes of those who serve. That is easier than the reality of knowing that it is real-life, three-dimensional people who take on the risk of putting on a uniform. If we make them superhuman, free from fear, willing to die for all of us, elevated on a distant pedestal, we can forget they have wives, they have husbands, they are moms and dads, and that they intend to come home from harm’s way just as we would if we answered the country’s call to serve.
If we make them “other,” if we imagine them as unlike us, it makes it easier for us to bear the depth of loss that would accompany their death in the event such a tragedy occurs. Their families were prepared for it, we tell ourselves. Their families knew it could happen, that it was a risk, we say.
But no family is prepared for it. No Gold Star family feels braced for the enormity of the suffering that comes with a child, a parent, a husband, a wife who doesn’t come home. Every birthday, every anniversary, every Memorial Day, every parent’s day at school — all those absences — no one signs up for that. And no family is ready for the savage relentlessness of the suffering it brings.
One more awful truth: Right now, the pain these families feel is deeply personal. It is localized. Their loved ones may have given their lives for this country. But we don’t feel their absence, their loss as a nation. Much of the time we don’t even notice the news announcing their death. In fact, many of us don’t know anyone serving in uniform. It all feels far removed from our day-to-day lives.
That is until their personal loss collides with our national politics. And then people who hadn’t thought about Gold Star families in some time — if ever — all of a sudden become committed to their cause.
But service is not about proving a point. It is not about politics or partisanship. It is about purpose and patriotism.
America, if we want to do something for Gold Star families, how about we begin by remembering them? And not simply when political points can be gained. But on the lonely days, the holidays, the anniversaries, when the quiet and the absences can overwhelm families working to survive their loss.
We could honor these sacrifices by being a country that works to understand what people are risking in its name — a nation that knows that service is greater than any one person and above anyone’s politics.