Gold Star families, veterans share a common bond | NevadaAppeal.com

Gold Star families, veterans share a common bond

Steve Ranson
LVN Editor Emeritus

The crisp, cloudless autumn day greeted the small group, many bundled in bright red Honor Flight Nevada sweatshirts and covered by coats to protect them from the morning chill. They listened and watched and learned more about Maryland's Gold Star Families Memorial Monument on the final leg of their recent four-day trip to Washington, D.C., and Annapolis, home of the U.S. Naval Academy.

About a dozen mothers and family members from the Battle Born state participated in the late fall Honor Flight Nevada trip to the East Coast — along with three dozen veterans — where they developed lasting friendships and gained a wider knowledge of the support systems available to them. The American Gold Star Mothers originated in 1928 to recognize mothers who lost a son or daughter in military service during World War I, but the program expanded to include service regardless of war or peace and cause of death.

TIME EASES PAIN

Minden residents Paul Steinbacher and his wife Carolyn — formerly of La Crescenta, Calif. — lost their son from a roadside bomb that exploded near his Humvee in Iraq on Dec. 10, 2006, during a night patrol. Just two days before, Army Spc. Nicholas P. Steinbacher celebrated his 22nd birthday. The infantryman, who enlisted in the Army in December 2004, was assigned to the 2nd Battalion, 5th Cavalry Regiment, 1st Brigade, 1st Cavalry Division, at Ft. Hood, Texas, and arrived in Iraq two months before his death. The time encompassing the holidays has always been difficult for the Steinbachers, especially in December, but traveling on an Honor Flight with the veterans and Gold Star mothers and family members helped ease the pain.

"I know how my son felt by the camaraderie with his unit," Paul Steinbacher said after talking to the Honor Flight veterans and learning more of their backgrounds.

Yet, those intimate conversations and watching other veterans interact with each other changed Steinbacher's outlook. He realized they're brothers in arms, not blood related, and they showed a sympathetic side within. Steinbacher said Nevada's future Gold Star Memorial will encompass all services and remember those who paid the ultimate sacrifice.

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"Veterans are extended Gold Star families who served with their comrades and connected with them throughout the years," Steinbacher remarked.

When veterans spoke of their service and bonding with their brothers and sisters, Steinbacher said he and Carolyn felt so humbled being there among the servicemen and women. Paul Steinbacher, though, regrets he didn't say more.

"I wish I would've been able to tell the veterans they are Gold Star families," he added.

After visiting Maryland's Gold Star Family Memorial in Annapolis, Steinbacher felt reinforced with his earlier beliefs.

"It's significance isn't just for Gold Star mothers and families. It truly extends to every veteran who lost someone or a loved one," Steinbacher said.

OPENING UP

Steinbacher, though, was amazed with the openness the Honor Flight veterans shared with their comments. His father and father-in-law both served in World War II, and when they returned home, they never told stories of their service. As children, Steinbacher and others didn't ask or discuss their parents' involvements during the war. Steinbacher, though, sees that changing.

"With Vietnam, it seems their service is unfinished with so many of them, and it's so good to see them talk about it," Steinbacher said of the veterans he met. "It's something they feel so strongly about, they get together and support each other."

Gold Star mother Sherry Zaehringer of Reno and her daughter Nicole Cross-Scott accompanied the other families to Washington, but Zaehringer said the veterans treated them as family. She felt the veterans' pain when they relived their experiences at the Gold Star Families Memorial Monument and at other memorials in the nation's capital. She said the Gold Star Memorial also impressed her and other Gold Star mothers, knowing both families and veterans have suffered the loss of life.

"People lost friends, they watched people die. We watched the guys at dinner tell their stories … some would break down," Zaehringer said. "The trip opened up these veterans with the hurt they've been carrying all these years."

Zaehringer said counseling is a great experience, and each traveler experienced some degree of healing from the others.

Eight years have passed since her son, U.S. Marine Sgt. Frank Riddell Zaehringer III, died in combat in Helmand province, Afghanistan, from an improvised explosive device (IED). The 2005 Wooster High School graduate, who played football and baseball, served with the 2nd Battalion, 9th Marines, 2nd Marine Division, I Marine Expeditionary Force at Camp Lejeune, N.C. Zaehringer left Iraq in July 2006 for his first tour of duty in Afghanistan.

Sherry Zaehringer described how her son loved playing high-school sports, and the family never missed an away game.

She attended this year's Wreaths Across America Day at the Northern Nevada Veterans Memorial Cemetery in Fernley, along with Nicole, where she honored her son and her husband, Vietnam veteran Frank Riddell Zaehringer Jr.

"My husband died last year from cancer," Zaehringer said. "He never opened up, and when he came home, he didn't wear his uniform. This trip opened up these veterans and the hurt they've been carrying."

Zaehringer said the Honor Flight helped her bond with newfound friends who began to tell their stories.

"It's awesome. They're talking," she recalled.

CONNECTING

As Gold Star parents on an Honor Flight, the Steinbachers and others felt the connection and the ability to reflect, especially when they previously attended Honor Flight homecomings at the Reno-Tahoe International Airport. Now, the Steinbachers experienced the war memorials and monuments in the nation's capital.

Paul Steinbacher and Zaehringer left the World War II memorial in awe, especially after seeing 4,000 gold stars that signified the deaths of 400,000 servicemen and women. Steinbacher said Arlington National Cemetery left them speechless especially with the soldiers who stood guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

"You can't put a price on that," he said.

The Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall evoked a deep-seated response.

"It's how it reaches out to you," Steinbacher said of the Vietnam Wall, which is recessed into the earth. "It's very profound and significant. For a lot of veterans with us that day, it was emotional and significant."

Zaehringer said at one of the memorials, a Leatherneck gave her a Marine Corps pen, thanked her for being there but expressed his sorrow for her loss. The U.S. Holocaust Museum provoked the Gold Star families to reflect on the plight of millions of people during World War II, and the deaths of millions of Jews. Jon Yuspa, founder and director of Honor Flight Nevada, said the entire trip changed many Gold Star families' perspectives.

"We opened them up to discussion," Yuspa said. "They've never been to the Holocaust museum, and they gave us feedback. We talked about depression and suicide, and they were willing to share."

On the first day of the trip, Yuspa said many Gold Star families were nervous, but by the end of the trip, everyone felt like family. The Honor Flight was only the beginning as more emphasis was placed on Gold Star mothers and families. At the Maryland Gold Star Families Memorial Monument, Yuspa said 30 other Gold Star families visiting the site greeted the Nevada parents — complete strangers hugging one of their own.

CHANGING PERCEPTIONS

Despite sharing the camaraderie of being Gold Star families, Yuspa said many find it difficult to partake in holiday festivities.

"Many Gold Star families just don't celebrate the holidays," Yuspa said, citing the dark cloud that hovers over the festivities.

Yet Yuspa wants to change that. Nevada's Honor Flight travelers received donated tickets to see the Christmas trees and decorations at the White House after the U.S. Secret Service conducted 49 background checks within 48 hours. Then, less than two weeks after their return to Reno, the Atlantis Casino Resort Spa in Reno hosted a Gold Star Families Christmas Tree lighting on Dec. 11. On the night of the tree lighting, John Farahi, CEO of the Atlantis not only asked to speak but afterward, he personally hugged all the Gold Star Families. He also announced the Atlantis would like to donate $25,000 to the Gold Star Family Memorial.

Also in December, construction workers poured the concrete slab for Nevada's Gold Star Memorial, which is located at the new Northern Nevada State Veterans Home in Sparks.

"The largest portion of construction has been complete," Yuspa said. "We'll expand it with sidewalks, and benches."

Funding for the memorial received a boost at December's Veterans of the Month ceremony with the Nevada Military Support Alliance surprising the Gold Star Memorial Foundation with a $25,000 check.

Sally Diamond Wiley of Gardnerville, who lost her son Sean Diamond to an IED in Iraq almost 10 years ago, embraces the holidays by remembering service members, many of whom are stationed overseas. Her garage becomes a mini-workshop of the North Pole as she and other volunteers collect items for veterans, box them up and ship the packages.

Wiley, who belonged to the Sierra Nevada Blue Star Moms before Sean died, flew on an Honor Flight several years ago as a guardian, but she and her husband, Michael, accepted the latest invitation to travel on the last flight. Although she previously visited the memorials in Washington and the White House, she described their recent trip to Maryland's Gold Star Families Memorial Monument.

"We were greeted by the mothers at the memorial," she said of the solemn visit, "who put roses on the memorial."

With the stop to the memorial being the final one before boarding the plane and heading home to Reno, they saw how the four days came together with the group's camaraderie.

"It was the trip of a lifetime," Michael said of the whirlwind trip that synchronizes each stop like a fine-tuned watch. "It's a well-oiled machine."

Sally Wiley said good weather, although cold, blessed the Nevada travelers, and each stop at a memorial left an indelible impression on them and the others.

"I saw the Pentagon Memorial … very moving and stark. It's different from all the other memorials," Wiley recalled.

Part of the memorial features 125 benches with names of those who died in the Pentagon facing outward and names from American Airlines flight 77, which crashed into the building at 500 mph, facing inward. Wiley said it was important to be there, but she felt uncomfortable. The eerie mood at the Pentagon contrasted with the visit to the Vietnam Wall across the Potomac River.

"Mike and I went over to the vets who were kneeling down," Sally said, after they arrived at the Vietnam Wall. "There was a lot of hugging that day. They were kneeling down and crying. I let them know it's OK to cry."

With each passing hour until they returned to Reno, the Wileys said the veterans began to open up, especially during mail call after Saturday's dinner. They remember one veteran who received a package of letters, all written by his family members. Because of this interaction, Sally reiterated that combining Gold Star families and veterans made this a trip of a lifetime.

"We were a great group for empathy, understanding and love and at the age to remember Vietnam," Michael said. "It was a good mix."

Sally reflected on the mail-call experience and newly-made friendships.

"They treated us tenderly," she said of the veterans. "We were so supportive of them, and they were supportive of us. It had so much meaning, and everyone was so happy to be there."

CONSOLER IN CHIEF

Sally Wiley consoles other Gold Star mothers and families even though she vividly remembers the day and circumstances when she first learned of her son's death in Iraq on Feb. 15, 2009. Army Staff Sgt. Sean D. Diamond of Dublin, Calif., was on his third deployment to Iraq when an IED detonated near his Humvee in As Salam. He was assigned to the 610th Engineer Support Company, 14th Engineer Battalion, 555th Engineer Brigade at Fort Lewis, Wash., before it merged to become Joint Base Lewis–McChord in 2010.

"He was a lot older than most of the other guys," Sally Wiley said of her 41-year-old son. "They really loved him and followed the old guy. In 2008 his unit was coming from northern Iraq all the way down to southern Iraq to help the Iraqis rebuilding, and they had two Humvees and a work truck. He usually sat in the front seat. Both sergeants were the best IED watchers, but on this particular day, another guy got into the front and no one knows why. Sean said he would get into the second Humvee, and he was lying down talking to the driver and an IED went off before the first one. Another IED went off between the first and second, and killed him instantly."

A third IED denotated after the second Humvee passed.

Michael and Sally were driving to Reno to see Wayne Newton at the Nugget, and they were also booked on a ship for a trip. Sally said she received a call relating the news of Sean's death.

"Michael pulled over the car … I go out running and screaming. I couldn't believe it. I was down on my knees crying my eyes out."

Michael turned the car around, and the Wileys began their half-hour trip to their Gardnerville home.

"He was already dead. That's how it happened," Sally said of her son, who left a wife and four young children.

After his death, Sally said his fellow sappers named a small forward base in Iraq's Diyala Province as JSS Diamond, and another area was dedicated in his name. Back home in Dublin, the city added his name to a plaque, while Camp Parks Reserve Center named its new training building after the Army sergeant.

Sally Wiley's resolve shows when she tells others of her son and his third tour in Iraq, yet those small moments remain emotional for many Gold Star mothers. The smallest things may lead to quietness or to tears. At the Gold Star Christmas tree lighting, Sally received an ornament to hang on the tree with Sean's photo on it. She grew pensive.

"My turn came, and I cried," she said. "It (the photo) was the last one I took when he was alive."