MOH recipient's goal: Tributes to Gold Star families in all 50 states
By JOE GROMELSKI | STARS AND STRIPES Published: September 19, 2014
EDITOR'S NOTE: According to Williams Foundation executive director Brent Casey, since this story was written, commitments to build Gold Star Families Memorials have been made in Rochester, N.Y.; Lafayette, Ind.; Ashland, Ky.; Grove City, Ohio; Elizabethtown, Ky.; and Fairmont, W. Va.
With Sunday's dedication of the Pennsylvania Gold Star Families Memorial in Valley Forge, Pa., a project that got its direction from a Medal of Honor recipient's chance meeting with a grieving father is taking a big step forward.
Marine Corps veteran Hershel "Woody" Williams, the last surviving recipient of the nation's highest military honor from the pivotal World War II Battle of Iwo Jima, was giving a speech to a veterans group.
His goal at the time was to find ways to honor Gold Star Mothers, those who lost children in combat.
But afterwards, a man approached him. The man's wife had died before their son joined the military, and when the son was killed in Afghanistan the father was left to grieve alone.
"Tears were rolling down his cheeks," Williams recalled. "The only thing he said to me was, 'dads cry, too.'
"At that point in time I got to thinking, why am I concentrating on just one person? I know mothers grieve, and probably grieve greater than other people, because that's part of her that she lost. But I thought, I've got to change this goal. Let's go with families, rather than a single person."
The Pennsylvania memorial is the second one spearheaded by the Hershel "Woody" Williams Medal of Honor Foundation, following one dedicated last year in Dunbar, W. Va. The goal is to place at least one in every state, and several others are in the planning stages.
"Once we developed the (West Virginia memorial), and it was viewable by everybody, it turned out to be such an emotional type of reception that the thought came to my mind, we don't have anything in the country that actually pays tribute to the families who gave a loved one not only for our freedom, but for the freedom of others," Williams said. "And maybe that would serve, if we could get one in various communities — I certainly wasn't thinking of national — to honor the families in those communities.
"I mentioned it to my grandson, and from there the idea just kept gathering momentum. And it was his decision more than mine, but together we decided that we would try to get one of these in every state, because every state has families that lost loved ones. And since we don't have a national monument of any kind, anywhere ... We've got 1,100 monuments or whatever in Washington, D.C., but not a one of those pays tribute to those who lost a loved one."
The grandson, Brent Casey, is a Gulf War veteran of the 82nd Airborne who serves as executive director of Williams's foundation. He believes his grandfather's wish to honor families goes way back.
"As an 18-year-old, he was a cab driver who delivered death notice telegrams from the War Department to the front door," Casey said. "He knocked on the door, and there were mom and dad and the two kids, and the grandparents lived there too, so he witnessed as an 18-year-old kid the impact this had on these families, and that they all grieved, they all cried, they all suffered. I think the seed was planted back then, as a boy driving a cab in rural West Virginia.
"Seems like no matter where he speaks, he says 'raise your hand' (if someone has had a relative killed in battle), and half the room raises their hands. Some of them don't even realize they are a Gold Star family member. Because if their grandfather died in World War II, they're still a Gold Star grandchild. or if their father died in Korea, they're a gold star son or daughter. People know they've sacrificed, but they don't know the Gold Star Family term because they've never been recognized or honored for that sacrifice. That's what we're trying to do."
Casey says that his 90-year-old grandfather thrives on "staying busy. Keeping doing what's important to him. Just getting up every day, concentrating and working on projects like the foundation, or legislation relating to veterans in West Virginia or nationally, or speaking engagements, or writing speeches. He's constantly doing all the above. I'll talk to him in he morning and he'll say, 'Ah, I didn't sleep very good last night. My brain wouldn't quit.' He has a hard time falling asleep at night because he's so eager, so anxious, 'gotta get up and start on that tomorrow. Gotta take care of that tomorrow.'"
Williams is eager to hear from people who might be interested in building a memorial in their area.
"Contact the foundation," he said. "We have a package that we put together with the permission of the architect and contractor that did ours. It has all the measurements, everything they would need to start with.
"Except the contractor and money," he added with a laugh. "That's their responsibility."
As for design, he stressed that the foundation has no set standards. "We're going to let that be up strictly to the people who are going to do it. It does not have to be exactly like ours."