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Naval Submarine Base New London (SUBASE) marked Navy Gold Star Awareness Month, May 2022, with the dedication of a month-long Flag Garden and proclamation signing on the base, Tuesday, May 3. The event honored fallen service members, from all branches of service, regardless of cause of death, and their Gold Star families. The Navy Gold Star Program has dedicated the month of May as Gold Star Awareness Month since 2015.

Naval Submarine Base New London (SUBASE) marked Navy Gold Star Awareness Month, May 2022, with the dedication of a month-long Flag Garden and proclamation signing on the base, Tuesday, May 3. The event honored fallen service members, from all branches of service, regardless of cause of death, and their Gold Star families. The Navy Gold Star Program has dedicated the month of May as Gold Star Awareness Month since 2015. (Maxwell Higgins/U.S. Navy)

GROTON, Conn. (Tribune News Service) — Helen Keiser-Pedersen said with a knock on the door on March 11, 2013, and a notification that began with the heartbreaking words, "We regret to inform you," she became a Gold Star mother — someone who lost a child in military service.

Her son, 28-year-old Army Capt. Andrew Michael Pedersen-Keel of Madison, was killed in Afghanistan that day.

Now, more than nine years later, Keiser-Pedersen has found that too many people don't know what it means to be a Gold Star family. She has been shocked when people see her Gold Star license plate and say, "Oh, is your son a scholar?"

"This is inexcusable ignorance," she said. "We're here; we're not going anywhere."

Keiser-Pedersen, a Madison resident and president of the Connecticut Department of American Gold Star Mothers, spoke at the flag dedication event the Naval Submarine Base in Groton held Tuesday afternoon in honor of Navy Gold Star Awareness Month.

This is the first time there is a flag garden on base for Gold Star Awareness Month, and Lt. Cmdr. Derek Sutton, director of the Submarine Force Museum and officer in charge of the historic ship Nautilus, said it will be illuminated "from dusk through dawn."

Keiser-Pedersen began her remarks quoting the Military Code of Conduct: "I am an American, fighting in the forces, which guard my country and our way of life. I am prepared to give my life in their defense."

She questioned, "What other job application asks you to sacrifice your life?" and said as many soldiers make that sacrifice, so too do their families.

April Tischler, Navy Gold Star program coordinator, said while Veterans Day and Memorial Day "allow us to honor our men and women in uniform who have put themselves in harm's way to defend the people they love and the land they cherish," Gold Star events like the one Tuesday allow the nation to come together in another way.

"It is a time to honor the families who keep the memory of our fallen service members — their loved ones — burning bright," she said.

Capt. Kenneth Curtin, commanding officer of the sub base, signed a proclamation declaring May 2022 as Gold Star Awareness Month. Also attending the event was U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District.

Curtin said the inaugural flag garden is one small way to "remind us all that freedom isn't free."

Keiser-Pedersen joined other Gold Star family members in planting the final flags at the ceremony: Nancy Lewis, Gold Star spouse of Chief Petty Officer Elmer Randall "Randy" Lewis Jr.; Elaine Gray, Gold Star parent of Petty Officer First Class Christopher Helie, 38, of Washington state; Karen Doyon, Gold Star parent of Petty Officer 2nd Class Dustin Louis Doyon of Suffield; and Whitney Guthrie, Gold Star daughter of Cmdr. Keith Gillette Jr.

Guthrie said her father, a dentist in the Navy, died 30 years ago, and the Gold Star program has been a big help to her and her mother, Trudy Gillette, reaching out every year around the anniversary of his death.

"When you lose your military member, it feels like you've been ripped out of the military community," said Guthrie, who lost her father when she was 6.

About 15 years after losing her husband, Trudy Gillette of New London began working for the Navy, first at the Pentagon and then in Groton, in human resources and workers' compensation.

"I think the best thing I did was coming back to work for the Navy," she said, "because it felt like I was coming home."

e.moser@theday.com

(c)2022 The Day (New London, Conn.)

Visit The Day (New London, Conn.) at www.theday.com

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.


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