Ken Beaton: If everyone lit one candle
What’s the worst situation for parents who have an adult child serving in the military? Hearing their doorbell ring and opening the front door to see two military officers in dress uniforms standing at attention with somber facial expressions. The senior officer addresses you in a staccato voice with the details of how your son/daughter was Killed In Action. Mentally your brain shuts down as the officer’s words slide off your memory bank similar to water off a duck’s back. The officer’s lips moved, but you didn’t hear any words.
Jon Yuspa, founder and CEO of Honor Flight Nevada, Reno and Las Vegas, recently visited the Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, Calif., the largest of the 13 federally-operated libraries. When he observed the library’s Gold Star Family Christmas Tree with an ornament for each fallen military man and woman, he thought, “Since Reno is one on the larger cities that recognizes veterans, we should have a Gold Star Family Christmas Tree.” I got to know Jon when I volunteered for the 15th Honor Flight Nevada, Sept. 9-11, 2016 trip to Washington, D.C.
Once Jon gets an idea as to how to honor vets, he puts it into action. All it took were two phone calls. One to Penny Estrada, a Blue Star Mom. The second call to Honor Flight Nevada family members, Dawn and Jim Forbes. Dawn’s mom, Nancy Simerly, is part of the package deal. Immediately, they were on board and bought an artificial Christmas tree and decorated it with lights, ribbon and hand made ornaments. The time-consuming part was gathering and sizing the pictures with the veteran’s name, rank, branch of service, the month, day, year and country where he died along with his hometown. (A couple of Gold Star families have moved to Nevada that’s why you’ll see a non-Nevada community on an ornament).
In the past, the guidelines for Gold Star Families were strict, a soldier had to be Killed In Action. Fortunately, the guidelines have broadened. Parents of soldiers who are killed in an accident or a self-inflicted wound, are included in the Gold Star Family.
Jon has a special supportive relationship with the owner of the Atlantis Casino. He’s a person who quietly donates “behind the scenes.” When Jon asked about a location for the tree, he received an immediate response. “Jon, we have a great location in a high traffic area on the second floor near the banquet rooms.” (As a person who has worked with many charitable campaigns, I appreciate a person who is a “straight shooter,” similar to one of the cowboys in an old black and white Western movie).
On the left side of the Christmas tree, there’s a plaque which reads.
“Gold Star Families Memorial of Nevada” ‘We know why he died. He saw the horrors of war, but bravely faced them, certain of his own cause and his country’s cause was a noble one: that he was fighting for human dignity, for free men everywhere. Today we pause to embrace him and all who served us so well.’ — Ronald Reagan
“To honor the values and ideals for which our country’s sons and daughters sacrificed, their commitment to duty and country, to thank them for their service and our freedom, and to make sure that they are never, ever, forgotten, the Atlantis Casino Resort Spa is privileged to display a Gold Star Christmas Tree honoring the families of service men and women who sacrificed their lives while serving in the military.”
“The Annual Holiday Memorial Tree Campaign offers Gold Star Families the opportunity to create new traditions while honoring the memory of our fallen who selflessly served our nation and died on active duty.”
“We shall reflect on their bravery and respectfully acknowledge the Gold Star Families.”
To ensure the privacy of Gold Star Families, Gold Star Family names aren’t public information. Each family has to come forward and identify themselves. There were nine Gold Star Families who experienced the last Honor Flight to Washington. The veterans and the Gold Star Families interacted. The vets shared some of their experiences with the Gold Star Families. They helped to heal each other as new friendships developed on the trip.
One of the nine Gold Star Families had stopped celebrating Christmas because they had painful memories. Their son’s birthday was Dec. 8. He was Killed In Action on Dec. 10. Now, they can deal with their pain and celebrate Christmas. The world was a little bit brighter this Christmas. What would the world be like if all 7 billion people each lit a candle?
FYI, there’s new non-profit, Gold Star Families Memorial of Nevada. The memorials will be in Sparks and the Las Vegas area. The memorials are designed to be a gathering place for all generations to honor and learn the price of freedom. The first location, The Northern Nevada Veterans Home in Sparks, will be completed in the spring. The committee members are Jon Yuspa, Mr. Sharon Oren, David Sousa, Sally Wiley (a Gold Star Mother) and Doc Ballard (a Vietnam veteran and Medal of Honor Recipient).