At the Brigade level, he is a social-security number that is tracked.
At Division level, he is a story board.
At the Corps level, he is a statistic.
At the Company and Platoon level, he is a gaping hole in the souls of a hundred men.
To his family, it is the end of the world.
—Jim Gourley, 2010
We have been discussing Gold Star families for the better part of a week now. The longer this spectacle continues, the sadder it becomes. The controversy is ostensibly about how our politicians and society treat the loved ones of those who have given the last full measure of devotion, but any meaningful focus on the stories and needs of these families themselves has been conspicuously absent. This article won’t mention the actions of politicians on either side of the aisle, because the story should never have been about them in the first place.
But maybe we can bring some good out of the fact that the families of the fallen have become the subject of our media cycle. To formalize a Twitter thread I posted on Wednesday, here is a short profile of every serviceman we lost in 2017, as well as verified GoFundMe accounts or memorial funds for many of their families. These are the people who matter. Let’s focus on them.
Sr. Chief Petty Ofc. William ‘Ryan’ Owens (1/29/17 – Yemen)
Chief Owens was killed in action in a Navy SEAL raid against the ISIS leader. His wife, Carryn, was honored with a standing ovation that lasted more than two minutes at this year’s State of the Union address.
Sgt. First Class Mark De Alencar (4/8/17 – Afghanistan)
De Alencar was a green beret who promised his stepdaughter he’d be home for her graduation. Eighty of his fellow green berets took his place. SFC De Alencar’s widow recently released a video of her phone call with President Trump.
In lieu of active GoFundMe accounts for SCPO Owens and SFC De Alencar, donations can be made to the Special Operations Foundation, which provides scholarships for the children of special operators who were killed in action.
First Lt. Weston Lee (4/22/17 – Iraq)
Lee was killed in action by a roadside bomb in Iraq, outside of Mosul, during the coalition-led offensive to retake the city from ISIS. A ranger school classmate remembered Lee as “a friend, a true gentleman, and an American hero. He had a southern drawl even during movement to contact in the swamps. He adored his girlfriend and loved his country.”
A GoFundMe for a scholarship in Lee’s honor is here.
Sgt. Cameron Thomas (4/26/17 – Afghanistan)
Thomas was an Army Ranger on his third deployment. He had 11 siblings. His obituary described him as “a walking contradiction. He drove a Jetta and rode a vintage Harley. He could strike a menacing paralyzing pose then flash a smile, wink his deep blue eyes, give you a bear hug and be the most loveable person alive. He was equally comfortable draped in half a dozen small kids as he was in the tools of war. He was smart, spoke Farsi, studied emergency medicine and radio technology.”
A GoFundMe for Thomas’s family is here.
Sgt. Joshua Rodgers (4/26/17 — Afghanistan)
Rodgers was a member of Third Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment with Thomas. “He was a man of very few words, but when he spoke you listened.” Friends remembered that he had wanted to be a Ranger since he was a little boy.
The Rodgers family set up a memorial fund in his honor, in conjunction with the Illinois Prairie Relief Foundation. The fund will provide college scholarships for other members of Third Ranger Battalion.
Sgt. Eric Houck (6/10/17 — Afghanistan)
Houck married his high school sweetheart. They have a five-year-old son and three-year-old daughter. His father remembered that Houck’s “family was the most important thing to him” and described him as “a hell of a father, a husband, a son, a brother, a soldier.”
A GoFundMe for Houck’s wife and children is here.
Cpl. Dillon Baldridge (6/10/17 – Afghanistan)
Baldridge’s last post on Facebook was a video of Shaquille O’Neal dancing, accompanied by the caption “how I feel knowing deployment is almost over.”
A GoFundMe for Baldridge’s family is here.
Sgt. William Bays (6/10/17 — Afghanistan)
Bays, 29, is survived by his wife Jasmin and his three young daughters: Laura, Mia, and Julia. From a story about Bays’ dignified transfer ceremony: “Soldiers, supporting local veterans, and representatives to the family quietly watched as Bays’ mother April Briggs Bays cried into her daughter Lindsay’s arms.” A procession of veterans on motorcycles accompanied Bays from the airport to the funeral home.
Sgt. Jonathon Hunter (8/2/17 – Afghanistan)
Hunter came from a family with a history of military service. He married on October 15, 2016, and had only been in Afghanistan for a month before he was killed. He and his wife had just discovered that they were expecting.
A GoFundMe page for SGT Hunter’s family is here.
Staff Sgt. Aaron Butler (8/16/17 – Afghanistan)
Butler was a green beret who had also served as a Latter Day Saints missionary in Ghana. His family released the following statement: “The Army values are: ‘Loyalty, Duty, Respect, Selfless-Service, Honor, Integrity, Personal Courage’. Aaron Butler personified those values in everything he said and did. In a life that was all too brief, our dear son and brother made the ultimate sacrifice for his country. While we are heartbroken to become a Gold Star family, we honor Aaron’s service and sacrifice. Aaron was a strength to us, an inspiration to those around him, and a joy to have in our family.”
Specialist Alexander Missildine (10/1/17 – Iraq)
Missildine was just 20 years old. At a candlelight memorial service in his hometown of Tyler, Texas, hundreds of people promised to pray for Missildine’s family every day at 10 a.m. and 10 p.m. for the next six months.
Staff Sgt. Dustin Wright (10/4/17 — Niger)
Wright’s family has a 205-year history of military service. Men from the Wright family have fought in every one of America’s wars, from 1812 to the Global War on Terror. He spoke to his brother on the phone 10 days before the ambush that killed him. Their last words to each other were “I love you.”
Wright’s family is raising money for the Fisher House and the Green Beret Foundation in his honor.
Staff Sgt. Bryan Black (10/4/17 — Niger)
Black was remembered as an incredible husband and father. From a local news story about him: “Another neighbor says Black’s mom, a teacher in the Sumner School District, was excited several days ago about what this year would bring. Now everything has changed, as loved ones grieve yet again for an American hero.”
Staff Sgt. Jeremiah Johnson (10/4/17 — Niger)
Those close to Johnson described him as “a red, white, and blue, rock-solid American with a great heart.” From a local news story about Johnson: “When an Army chaplain showed up Wednesday night trying to locate Debbie Gannon, it was like a gut punch to friends. ‘I knew it was, right then that was the, I knew who it was and I knew it was going to be Debbie’s son,’ said Jeff Baldrige, a 30-year Air Force veteran. ‘There’s so much horrible that’s going on in America, that just piles on another one that’s really, really close to home.’”
Sgt. La David Johnson (10/4/17 — Niger)
Johnson married his childhood sweetheart, whom he had known since he was six years old. Johnson’s widow is pregnant with the couple’s third child.
A GoFundMe for SGT Johnson’s family is here.