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Arkansas memorial pays tribute to Gold Star families

Sep 29 2019

Clara Turnage | Arkansas Democrat Gazette

When a military service member dies, a family weeps. Children grow up without a parent at graduations. Spouses watch their grandchildren grow up never knowing their grandfather or grandmother.

The Arkansas Gold Star Families Memorial Monument, dedicated Saturday morning at the state Capitol, is intended to honor those families whose loved ones died during military service.

More than 400 people filled stadium seats erected behind the Capitol to watch the unveiling of the monument, a tall, black monolith with an empty space in the center in the shape of a saluting soldier. As in the lives of gold star families, the soldier is missing.

"For whatever reason, our country, we as a society over the years have failed to recognize those who made that sacrifice so we could continue on living," said Marine Cpl. Hershel "Woody" Williams, the last surviving Medal of Honor recipient from the Battle of Iwo Jima.

His foundation -- the Hershel Woody Williams Congressional Medal of Honor Education Foundation -- was established in 2010 as a charitable nonprofit and encourages establishing Gold Star Families Memorial Monuments throughout the country.

Arkansas Secretary of State John Thurston said Saturday that Arkansas is the first state to approve creating a Gold Star Families Memorial Monument on Capitol grounds.

There are several Gold Star families memorials in Arkansas, and Williams said each represents the dead from their own communities. The memorial unveiled Saturday, however, represents all of Arkansas.

"There are many monuments and memorials in our America," Williams said. "Now that this one is finished, those families and relatives of loved ones from this state, this state of Arkansas, who sacrificed their loved ones are now for the first time receiving the honor and the tribute that they deserve."

Williams, 95, received the Medal of Honor on Oct. 5, 1945, after serving in World War II during the Battle of Iwo Jima. After his time in the Marine Corps, Williams delivered telegraphs to Gold Star families to notify them of their loved one's deaths. Williams said his time notifying family members taught him how deeply a family can hurt.

"This memorial will not erase the hurt or the sorrow or the heartache, nor will it take the place of the loved one that was lost," Williams said Saturday at the dedication. "But perhaps it will serve as a reminder that this community, this state, these people, share in their love and respect."

Williams said in an interview with the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette that one of his foundation's goals is to place multiple Gold Star families monuments in every state. Including Saturday's dedication, Williams said there have been 54 such memorials.

Without recognizing the families and friends of fallen soldiers, Williams said society will underestimate the true impact of war and conflict.

At one point in Saturday's ceremony, Gold Star families were asked to stand, and more than 150 people rose to their feet.

"No one ever chooses to be a Gold Star wife or family," said Sharri Briley, whose husband's helicopter was shot down in Mogadishu, Somalia, in 1993. Their daughter, Jordan, was 5 when he was killed.

The death of Chief Warrant Officer 3 Donovan Briley, a North Little Rock native, was memorialized in the novel and movie Black Hawk Down.

"Every day is a sacrifice when you've lost someone," Briley said a few minutes before the ceremony began. "I have grandchildren now. Our daughter's graduation, every major family event -- they're still not there."

At the dedication Saturday, Briley read a poem that her daughter, Jordan, wrote in high school. In the poem titled "My Hero," Jordan talks about the father she barely knew.

A few minutes before the ceremony, while the guests of honor were in the Capitol building's rotunda, Briley pulled Williams aside for a moment and handed him a silver coin. Giving someone a challenge coin is a long-standing military tradition that shows respect and honor to the recipient.

The challenge coin Briley slipped into Williams' palm Saturday bore the symbol of her husband's regiment, the Night Stalkers, as well as the date of his death, Oct. 3, 1993. The 26-year anniversary of his death is Thursday.

The coin, Briley said, was so that Williams would remember how much she appreciated his efforts to support Gold Star families.

Williams looked at the coin for a moment and smiled, closing his fingers around it.

"Thank you," he said. "Thank you so much."

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