The tradition of hanging a small banner with a blue star started in World War I to recognize families with a loved one serving overseas. If that family member died while in service, the blue star would change to a gold star, serving as a symbol of honor and respect for a family that had made the ultimate sacrifice.
In July, 2011, I got the call that every military parent dreads. As I hung up the phone on that hot summer day, my husband Craig and I became a gold star family. My son, Frank, had bravely followed in his father’s and grandfather’s footsteps by joining the army. He was so proud to wear his uniform and serve our country. On July 26, 2011, he was killed in Afghanistan by an IED explosion at just 25 years old.
In the excruciatingly painful and difficult hours that followed, we tried to grapple with the thought that our son was gone, and we scrambled to prepare for a trip to Dover, Delaware. Every U.S. military member who dies in combat while serving our country receives a dignified transfer when they return home, and Dover Air Force Base is known as the main entry point for fallen heroes. From 2009 to the end of 2014, there were more than 2,400 transfers in Dover, and Frank was one of them.
We barely had time to pack and get ready to leave for Dover, let alone find and book a hotel. Instead, we discovered the Fisher House for Families of the Fallen. Fisher House Foundation has 77 homes across the U.S. where families can stay at absolutely no cost while a loved one is receiving treatment – or when greeting fallen heroes back to the U.S.
Like other families of fallen soldiers, Craig and I found a special place of refuge at the Dover Fisher House. It was a place where we could pray, reflect and prepare to bring our son home. The Dover Fisher House was so much more to me than just a place to stay – it was a support network and community of families that held me up during the most difficult week of my life.
When we returned to Tampa, Craig and I had a decision to make. We could either allow the pain and sadness to consume us, or we could get up and turn our grief into something good.
Because of my experience losing Frank and the time I spent surrounded by the families and volunteers at Fisher House, I decided to dedicate my life to supporting service members and their families through the most trying times. That year, I became a regular volunteer at the VA Fisher House in Tampa, Fla. I spend several hours a week with families whose loved ones are receiving treatment for illnesses or injuries at the Tampa VA.
To honor our son, Craig quit his job and opened “Frankie’s Patriot BBQ,” a BBQ restaurant filled with military and veteran keepsakes that help keep the memory of Frank and his fellow service members alive. While some of these keepsakes belonged to Frank, others have been donated to us by military families across the country. Our restaurant has become a landmark for veterans, military members and their families who often travel to our restaurant to pay their respects, talk to others who have had similar experiences and share a meal.
On Memorial Day, we remember those who have made the ultimate sacrifice, and I honor my son’s memory each day through my work at the Spinal Cord Injury Unit at James A. Haley VA Hospital and at the Tampa Fisher House. Frank made the ultimate sacrifice for our country, and I am proud to be his Gold Star mother.