SEYMOUR JOHNSON, N.C. --
“Since learning about the community, it has changed my life,” she said. Taylor Grotjan, a local North Carolina resident, has been a Gold Star family member since 2018. Taylor is the wife of Staff Sgt. James “Ty” Grotjan who died July 12, 2018, while deployed in support of Operation Inherent Resolve.
With respect to survivors, the support shown after the death of a loved one can be a key in their strength to move forward. The Gold Star family is a group no one wishes to be in. A Gold Star family member is the immediate family member of a service member who has died while serving in the U.S. Armed Forces in a military related death. The program is a way for the Air Force to keep Gold Star family members connected and a part of the Air Force family.
“There is no way to truly describe what the military family is like, but nothing pulls a family together like seeing their own hurting,” said Taylor. “The family we formed while we were stationed at RAF Lakenheath began showing up as soon as they heard the news. They came from all over the world and country to stop in and say hello. They called to check-in to make sure I was doing okay, sent care packages and more. They turned up in every way a family would, and I will forever be thankful to them.”
The Gold Star program was formed in World War I, where the program started out as the Gold Star Wives. Since then, the program has undergone many changes over time to include adding spouses and family members of the individual who passed. The program now falls under the Air Force Families Forever Program with many other programs intended to help assist in casualty assistance and grievance.
“The Air Force Families Forever Program is not strictly for Gold Star families, it's for other surviving family members as well,” said Andrew Colville, 4th Force Support Squadron casualty assistance representative. “The program headquarters provides us lists of Gold Star families and we stay in contact with them and we send them letters on a rotational basis, inviting them to events and to see if they have any questions.”
Colville has been a casualty assistance representative for over 20 years. He has been a part of some of these families' lives for decades from helping families to completing crisis training, completing incident-related documents and starting grief counseling.
“If throughout your career you made one person's life a little bit easier or better, that's the measure of success, ” said Colville, paraphrasing a quote that helped him stay motivated throughout his career. “I serve as a reminder to let Gold Star family members know that they're not doing this alone. Sometimes, I won't see them for months or many years later, and they come up to me, and say, ‘I couldn't have done this without you’ or ‘you made it so much easier for me’ and, ‘ I can't even begin how to tell you how much we appreciate what you did.”
Here at Seymour Johnson there are two local Gold Star families and for those members, Colville ensures they feel a part of the family.
“It's a very tiring job,” he said. “It's relentless. The hardest part of this job is really trying to take my emotions out of it. Seeing the loss in someone's eyes when they're hurting and seeing what they're going through, it's really hard not to feel because it's human nature.”
Though the job has its hardships, many lives are impacted by this program. Taylor expressed how grateful she is for the additions to her family and their constant love and connection.
“James and I grew closest to the new family we were gaining here at Seymour Johnson, and they have all kept in touch even though most of them moved away,” said Taylor. “While the family support has never ceased, even when I began to pull back from being involved as much, the new family members I gained from James’s passing, such as Mr. Colville, retired CMSgt. Nurse, and Lt. Col. Dotzlaf, all still reach out to do occasional check-ins. That has meant more than I can express.”
Grieving and mourning the loss of a loved one is never easy. Taylor recommends military family members find a community and seek help.
“Seek out the Gold Star community,” said Taylor. “Even when you feel like no one could possibly understand how you are feeling, what you are going through and any other doubt you may have, we are not here to compare our journey to yours. You don’t have to go through it alone even when you may feel like you have to. For me, getting into grief counseling was a tremendous help in getting me to a point where I could accept myself as a widow and a Gold Star member.”
Taylor said grief isn't a load for her to carry alone and that being a part of this program has taught her so.
Support for Airmen and families doesn't end when members leave the military, retire or pass away. Being a part of the Gold Star family organization means having support and a family for life.