It’s a club to which no one wants to belong. You can’t pay to be a member, but the cost is high. Instead, membership is forced upon you.
Gold Star Families become members when an immediate family member – a father, mother, son, daughter or other loved one – falls while serving his/her country in a time of conflict.
For years, gold stars have been displayed at the homes of those who lost loved ones in defense of America. The term refers to service flags flown by families during World War I. The flags held a blue star for every immediate family member serving in the U.S. armed forces. If that loved one died, the blue star was replaced with a gold one as a sign of the ultimate sacrifice that family paid.
Today, Gold Star Families work closely with Gold Star Mission to raise money for scholarships in honor of the fallen.
Gold Star Mothers
Nita Cross became a Gold Star Mother on March 11, 2005 when her son, Illinois National Guard Sgt. First Class Kyle Brett Wehrly, was killed in action (KIA). Kyle was the lead vehicle in a convoy in the desert outside of Baghdad when his vehicle hit an IED.
“Kyle was a darned good soldier,” says Nita. “The guys in his unit told me he stepped up when his sergeant first class came back to the states for two weeks, and he was a good commander. He would have taken all the missions he could have, but they wouldn’t let him.”
Kyle was excited he had a daughter. She was 6 when he was killed. “I am very fortunate because I have a granddaughter,” Nita explains. “There is still a part of him left.”
“It’s a mother’s worst nightmare,” she says. “We were the first KIA in the Galesburg area, but there were another seven after. Our area got hit hard. We’ve been through a lot with the other families. No one was there for us because we were the first. But, that’s ok. I understand, but I was there for the rest because I knew what it was like.”
“I would tell the families they were going to make it through the pain,” Nita says. “You don’t think you are now, but you will. It made me stronger to help others. You have to learn to live with the hurt; it doesn’t go away.”
Nita has shared that message with multiple mothers, and they have found it to be true. They learn to live and carry on.
Another part of Nita’s healing came through her involvement in events like the Gold Star 500 – a five-day, 500-mile bike ride in honor of Illinois’ fallen.
“I want to carry on Kyle’s legacy by doing these things,” she explains. “Gold Star Mothers never want their kid’s names forgotten, and that’s what this ride is all about. Always remember, never forget.”
Nita and her husband Rick first heard about the Gold Star 500 when visiting the Illinois State Fair. The organization, Gold Star Mission, was originally formed to honor the 34 fallen Illinois National Guardsmen who had died since 9/11.
Gold Star Mission conducts an annual 500-mile bike ride in remembrance of those original 34, and for the more than 270 Illinois soldiers who have passed since that fateful September day. The group doesn’t want them to ever be forgotten. To that end, funds are raised for the ride and scholarships are given out annually in the name of one of the fallen.
“Kyle’s daughter received the first scholarship in his name,” says Nita. “The following year she received another one in a different soldier’s name. That’s ok. I want all of them honored with a scholarship. The fallen and their families are part of my family too. I stay in contact with Kyle’s National Guard unit in Galesburg, go to battalion activities, and every year on the anniversary of his death, we go out to eat, meet his unit and have a candlelight vigil at the cemetery.”
The journey of healing has been a shorter one for Vonda Rodgers of Normal. Her son, U.S. Army Ranger Josh Rodgers, was killed in action on April 27, 2017. Josh joined the Army immediately after graduating high school in 2013 and was on his third deployment when he was killed.
“We miss him like crazy,” says Vonda. “He was born to be a Ranger. He was just designed for it and was living his dream. Even that night when his unit was taking down ISIS in the area and they came under fire from all directions.”
“We miss him, and we honor him and celebrate his life through events like this [Gold Star 500],” she says. “He was a fierce friend; a tight friend. He would always stand up for his friends.”
Vonda says the Normal community has been extremely supportive. The local post office is dedicated to Josh as is Airport Road. The area in Evergreen Cemetery, where Josh is interred, was named the Sgt. Josh Rodgers Veterans Field.
Josh played baseball and football and was involved in local youth sports. “After he was killed, everyone showed up to support us,” says Vonda. “We formed a memorial in Josh’s name to give back to youth sports in the area and we formed a scholarship and a leadership award at the high school in his name.”
Through the Heroes for Habitat program of Habitat for Humanity, the family is helping to build a house in Josh’s honor for a local family in need.
“The men of C Company, his ranger brothers, are all my friends now,” she says. “Rangers are all cut from the same cloth, and they all carry a little bit of Josh with them. My Ranger hugs are pretty important to me. I try to go down to Fort Benning about four times a year to see the guys and visit the memorial that his name is on.”
Josh isn’t the only tough one in his family. In June, Vonda, an admitted non-runner, started training for the Marine Corps Marathon in October in Washington, D.C. “The Rangers are a pretty tough group of men, so I’m taking that step forward. Your fallen hero is always important, and I’m doing it in a way that would actually honor Josh. You have to be a little bit harder than you think you can be to get through it. I think of the Army motto, ‘embrace the suck,’ and I keep on going,” she says laughing.
Gold Star 500
The 2019 Gold Star 500 pushed off on Sept. 24 with 31 riders spanning from 20 to 78 years old. Their journey began in Marseilles, Ill. and took them through 34 communities, around 100 miles a day, to their final stop at the First Division Museum in Cantigny Park, Wheaton.
The grueling physical pain of pedaling a bicycle for 500 miles pales in comparison to the emotional pain of those who lost loved ones who served overseas. The riders’ willingness to endure some physical pain reminds the public that hundreds of Illinois citizens have given their lives for their freedom and their families have, in Abraham Lincoln’s words, “laid so costly a sacrifice upon the altar of freedom.”
This year’s riders had a variety of weather thrown at them. Through stifling heat, humidity, wind, rain and thunderstorms, they persevered. The ride is a well-oiled machine of cyclists, hand signals, radios, lead and trail vehicles, medical assistance, bicycle repair, and takes a small army of volunteers to make sure the riders are properly fed and hydrated.
At the Bloomington rest stop, the cyclists greeted Gold Star Mothers Frances Maddox, Nita Cross and Vonda Rodgers with hugs. Maddox’s stepson Sergeant Anthony R. Maddox died on July 22, 2013 while serving during Operation Enduring Freedom.
During the stop, cyclist Michael Graves was peeling off his rain-soaked jacket. The group encountered showers in Lexington that morning and he accidentally grabbed his rain resistant jacket instead of the rain proof one. “I was soaked before we got out of the parking lot,” he says.
Graves rides in honor of Illinois Army National Guard Sergeant Ivory Phipps who was KIA on March 17, 2004 while serving during Operation Iraqi Freedom. “I ride every year for him,” Graves says. “He was in one of my subordinate units, and I am the one that talked him into going. He wanted to volunteer, and I showed him an opportunity. He was one of the first fatalities on that deployment out of the Paris [Ill.] unit. They ended up losing 12 of their soldiers on that deployment. A lot of us that initially started this ride personally knew those soldiers. It’s just keeping their memory alive. It’s so easy to get caught up in everyday life and forget about those people who have made our way of life possible.”
Before the cyclists remount their bikes at each stop, they take a few moments and announce the names of all fallen soldiers from the immediate area, all in an effort to help live their motto, “Always remember, never forget.”
As the group tightly weaves their way along the rural roads and city streets of fallen soldiers’ communities, it’s not unusual for an entire school’s children to line the path waving flags. Citizens, fire and police department employees often wait to greet them as they ride past.
In Carlock, schoolchildren waved flags and chanted, “U.S.A., U.S.A.,” as the cyclists came around the corner for their next rest break. The riders waved to them and many got off their bikes and gave the children high fives.
Cyclist David Risley, one of the more “seasoned” riders, remarks, “I have goosebumps all over my body. Seriously, this happened yesterday at an elementary school. We have the uncle of one of the fallen soldiers [Ranger Josh Rodgers], riding with us this year. He had to pull over. He was too emotional and couldn’t ride any farther. You just tear up. These kids are cheering for what we’re riding for, and I don’t know whether they fully understand what they mean when they wave those flags or what the flag stands for, but they know it’s something special. And, they are right!”
One of the cyclists, Jacob Harris of Pawnee, received a Gold Star scholarship, twice. He first heard about the ride and scholarships from a veteran involved with Gold Star Mission. “Even before they had the first Gold Star 500, I knew I wanted to be a part of it,” Harris says. “The first year I applied for the scholarship and won it. Then last year, I won it again but also rode the last 50 miles with the rest of them. This year, I’ve been on the whole thing, other than having bike issues and getting tired on one leg. I did one hundred miles yesterday and am going strong today.
“This cause is one of the best out there. For me personally, the scholarship had nothing to do with the money – it had everything to do with the name of that soldier that was on my scholarship. Same as last year, while learning every little detail about their lives, it kind of gives you a good mold of what you should strive to be like.”
Gold Star Mission
David Helfrich, president of Gold Star Mission, says, “It’s important that the Gold Star Families know that we have not forgotten what these men and women did for us. The American public must never forget.”
Helfrich adds that Gold Star Mission pays tribute to fallen soldiers and their families, encourages and builds selfless service, enlists public support for Gold Star Families, and provides unique programs to honor fallen heroes.
Established in 2017, the organization has awarded more than $70,000 in scholarships. It expects that amount to be more than $100,000 when it holds its annual Scholarship Award and Appreciation Dinner in March 2020, when it presents the scholarships and recognizes its volunteers.
What started as a desire to provide scholarships for surviving children has evolved into a widespread effort to assist Gold Star Families and others in need in order to preserve the memory of fallen soldiers.
The organization also hosts a Run for the Fallen half marathon, 3k and 5k run/walk each May within the Winnebago County Forest Preserve and the General Logan 200, a one-day 200-mile ride from Chicago to Springfield.
Apply for a scholarship
Gold Star Mission is a 501(c)3 organization and allocates funds raised through its events to support its scholarship fund. Multiple scholarships of $1,000 each are awarded annually, each in the name of one of Illinois’ fallen service members.
The scholarship application period runs from Nov. 1, 2019 to Jan. 15, 2020. Recipients are notified by mail and they and their families are invited to the annual dinner along with all Gold Star Families, scholarship recipients, riders, volunteers and donors.
Application requirements can be found at www.goldstarmission.org.
If you are interested in volunteering or donating to the cause, visit the website.