Father reflects on his daughter, service to country at Gold Star dedication
LVN Editor Emeritus
SPARKS — More than a decade ago, Nevada Army National Guard Maj. Kenneth Curtzwiler retired with 20 years of service. Traveling 60 miles round trip to Carson City one weekend a month, sometimes more, decreased, but at times, he yearned for the camaraderie that developed over the years with his friends.
Life, though, slowly began to unravel for the South Lake Tahoe, Calif., resident shortly after his retirement. His son died by suicide after he left the U.S Navy, and his daughter, 31-year-old Sgt. 1st Class Miranda McElhiney, was fatally shot in the Carson City IHOP Restaurant shooting on Sept. 6, 2011, along with two other Nevada Army National Guard soldiers and a civilian woman after a gunman opened fire.
Over the years, Curtzwiler had lost contact with McElhiney, but a chance encounter when he was still a soldier in the Nevada Guard reunited father and daughter. Then, tragedy struck on an early September Tuesday morning at the South Carson Street restaurant when a gunman armed with an AK-47 rifle opened fire on and inside the restaurant. The loss of loved ones in service to their county has been etched with Curtzwiler and thousands of other families who have endured similar situations.
Curtzwiler, along with scores of other parents and family members, attended a dedication Saturday of Nevada’s first Gold Star Families Memorial located at the Northern Nevada State Veterans Home in Sparks. From the messages delivered by several speakers including two Medal of Honor recipients — Hershel “Woody” Williams and Donald “Doc” Ballard and a fellow Gold Star father — Curtzwiler, who still looks combat ready for a man in his early 60s, realized many families and former military buddies of those who die as a result of their military service are there for each other.
At the end of the ceremony, Curtzwiler, who was wearing a black shirt and slacks, shook hands with the 96-year-old Williams, the last surviving Medal of Honor Marine from World War II, and told him of his losses with his son and daughter. With both men facing each other, Williams slowly reached out, touching Curtzwiler’s left shoulder. Sadness painted Williams’ reaction.
“We try to encourage the families to come to the memorial and experience the other family members and create a new family of like-type people who have had some of the same suffering,” Ballard added. “This is some place to come back and memorialize and reflect with their families. It’s been a healing opportunity for them.”
Yet, Ballard, who received his Medal of Honor as a result of his heroism as a Navy hospital corpsman during the Vietnam War in May 1968, spoke not only of sacrifice during battle but also the black clouds that hover over other veterans who can’t make the transition from military to civilian life or fight the inner demons.
“He (Ballard) touched on something else,” Curtzwiler said. “Dads cry too, and the other thing is 22 (number of veteran suicides committed in a day) is too many. I lost a son to post traumatic stress. For him to touch on a subject like this during this ceremony was powerful.”
Fellow Gold Star parent Patty Smith, also of South Lake Tahoe, viewed the new memorial with Curtzwiler. Her son, Sgt. Timothy M. Smith, died April 7, 2008, in Iraq when his vehicle hit an improvised explosive device. After Saturday’s ceremony, Smith said the dedication of a new memorial should make others more aware of Gold Star families.
“Many people don’t know what a Gold Star family is,” she said.
The unveiling of a memorial has been a labor of love not only for Jon Yuspa, a member of the Gold Star Families Memorial Nevada, but also for the Northern Nevada community.
“This is respectful for the families,” he said. “This is about the families.”
Four chaplains — Army veterans Jerome Washington and Dan Hussey; Truckee Bob Tilton, a Pyramid Lake tribal member and veteran; and Sharon Oren, who offered the Jewish blessing of Yzkor and Kadish, blessed the memorial while the Nevada Veterans Coalition based in Fernley and the Patriot Guard Riders participated in the unveiling.
The dedication served as a reminder of the sacrifices families encounter when a loved one is killed. The black granite memorial at the veterans’ home has two sides, one facing south representing a tribute to Gold Star Families and the other side looking north by telling a story on four panels of Homeland, Family, Patriot and Sacrifice. A cutout in the panel’s center symbolizes the missing loved one who paid the ultimate sacrifice.
Although the Northern Nevada community reaps the exposure from the Gold Star Families Memorial, Williams said he would like to see a memorial erected in every state and in many communities from the Atlantic to the Pacific oceans. Nevada dedicated the Battle Born Memorial in November 2018 as a tribute to the men and women from the Battle Born state who died as a result of their military service dating back to the Civil War. For Williams, though, a memorial located at every state Capitol is for everyone.
“Every state in this union should have one on their Capitol ground to honor the Gold Star families of that state wherever they live,” he said. “We do this one here to honor the people of this community. Someplace else will not know much about it. The one on the Capitol grounds represents every citizen in that state and the sacrifices made. The (Northern Nevada) community is doing this. For the first time, Gold Star families will come together.”
Every community in Nevada has experienced the sorrow that comes from a military death. Many area Silver State Gold Star families traveled in late November to Washington, D.C., and to Maryland’s memorial. Douglas County residents Paul and Carolyn Steinbacher and Sally Wiley, an honorary board member on the Gold Star Families Memorial Nevada, were part of the Honor Flight Nevada. Board member Steven Ward of Yerington, whose fifth-generation Marine son died in Afghanistan, also participated in the November trip and returned again in early June as a guardian.
Williams said his nonprofit, The Hershel Woody Williams Congressional Medal of Honor Education Foundation, Inc., was established to honor Gold Star families and the children and relatives in as many communities and every state. The first dedication occurred in his home state of West Virginia in 2013.
“In this short period of time, the communities — I didn’t do it — realized there were Gold Star families living in their communities and nobody had said anything about them or had given them any honor, any praise any tribute, nothing we didn’t even recognize them,” he pointed out. “We’ve done a good job of recognizing veterans. We have done a very poor job in honoring the families. Our goal is to have as many communities in this country as we can.”
The memorial has been a labor of love for Yuspa, executive director of Honor Flight Nevada, and at least a dozen more volunteers. They spent countless hours for planning and fundraising to make the unveiling possible.
“I am very pleased that what started out as a conversation turned into reality,” Ballard said when he discussed the project with Yuspa in January 2018 at a veterans’ event in Reno. “The people here have the desire to improve the quality of their communities and one of the ways of doing that is to give that back to the families who have paid the ultimate price of losing a family member. I am really ecstatic of what a little conversation turned into.”