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Gold Star families spend Memorial Day in National Capital Region

Behind every Gold Star pin you see a surviving family member wearing is a story of loss and strength.

That is the heart of the message a group of Gold Star families brought to Washington, D.C., Memorial Day weekend.

“I think it’s important to be at the point that you can talk about it because it’s never going to go away,” said Donna Engeman, the Army’s Survivor Outreach Services program manager and Gold Star wife of Chief Warrant Officer 4 John Engeman, who was killed May 14, 2006, by an improvised explosive device in Baghdad, Iraq.

During an interview with the families at the Capitol May 27, Engeman’s pin was attached to her shirt directly above her heart. On a chain around her neck were her husband’s dog tags and wedding band.

“We’re not going to let our enemies, they are not going to take us down, too,” said Engeman, who works at Fort Sam Houston, Texas. “We’re not going to do that. The pain is always there, but this is part of who we are now. It’s learning to live for that, and for me it’s constantly looking for something positive.”

The Army’s Installation Management Command launched an awareness campaign earlier this year with a series of public service announcements aimed at educating Americans about the pins. The PSA’s first aired during this year’s Super Bowl.

“Some of the folks don’t actually know that they’ve qualified for the pin, so we’ve received a number of inquiries as a result of seeing the PSAs,” said Pierre Laxa, chief, marketing account management for IMCOM. ”Also they can learn more about the services that are available for survivors through the Army’s Survivor Outreach Services.”

Annie Cox, Gold Star wife of Staff Sgt. Nathan Cox, who was killed in action in Korengal Valley, Afghanistan, Sept. 20, 2008, said the pins are designed to represent the loss of a loved one in support of the nation. Although the pins program has been in existence for decades, many Americans are unfamiliar with their significance and meaning, she said.

“This is a way to honor his legacy,” Annie explained.

Laxa explained there are actually two Gold Star pins. The Gold Star lapel button, which features a gold star on a purple background, is presented to immediate family members of servicemembers who lost their lives during any armed hostilities in which the United States is engaged dating back to World War I. This pin is congressionally mandated.

The lapel button for next of kin deceased personnel features a gold star within a circle of oak sprigs and is presented to family of servicemembers who have lost their lives while serving honorably from circumstances other than those identified for the Gold Star lapel button. This includes relatives of servicemembers who lost their lives while assigned to a Reserve or National Guard unit in drill status and is authorized for issue retroactive to March 29, 1973.

“It’s a tremendous step forward to increase awareness and to honor those who continue to serve, despite the loss they have in their own family,” said Laxa.

Phil Warman, Gold Star husband of Lt. Col. Juanita Warman, who was killed in the Fort Hood, Texas, shooting Nov. 5, 2009, said being able to wear the next-of-kin pin keeps him connected to the Army family.

“She had just been there for a few hours when he [Maj. Nidal Hussein] walked into the [readiness] center and started shooting,” the Havre de Grace, Md., resident said of the incident that took his wife’s life.

Army Regulation 670-1, which took effect March 31, authorizes Soldiers who have lost an immediate family member in combat to wear the Gold Star Lapel Button on the Army service and dress uniforms.  The regulation defines an immediate family member as a spouse, mother, father, stepparent, child, stepchild, sister, stepsister, brother, stepbrother or a person in loco parentis [acting in place of a parent].

While in the National Capitol Region, the families participated in the Rolling Thunder motorcycle rally which raised awareness for Prisoner of War/Missing in Action issues; a wreath laying ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery; took in a Washington Nationals game and the National Memorial Day parade; and toured the Capitol and met with their elected representatives.

For additional information about Gold Star pins, visit www.goldstarpins.org. For additional Memorial Day coverage, see pages 8-9.