Who Do These Families Turn To When Mourning A Fallen Service-Member?
There are two fronts in every war; the battlefront and the homefront. We give a great deal of appropriate attention to those who have gone to the battlefront, who have seen the horrors of war first hand, who have endured, suffered and, in too many cases, died.
We remember, too, those who have come home from war often find that they are caught up in a whole new set of battles, interior and exterior, as they try to re-enter the now unfamiliar realities of civilian life. But we do not spend enough time remembering those families who they left behind, whose lives have been changed forever by the experience of war as well.
Every year the Vietnam Helicopter Pilots Association (VHPA) holds a reunion. The mission statement for the VHPA reads: “To enhance and accredit the cohesiveness, esprit de corps, and traditions of valor of rotary wing air crews that flew in Southeast Asia during the Vietnam era.” The Association is quite large. It has some 15,000 members at this time. Over 40,000 helicopter pilots served in the Vietnam War and more than 5,000 were killed in action.
During this year’s reunion they paid particular tribute to the Bell-UH1 “Huey” and its contribution during that war. It was a true workhorse. It flew protective missions configured as a gunship, it transported troops to the battlefield and out of it. It was the the principle medevac transport as well. Every front line soldier or Marine remembers the sound of a Huey to this day. Vietnam era veterans hear them off in the distance before anybody else does.
When we hear that sound, or the sound of a CH-46, we always look up. We can’t help it. That sound meant a lot of things to us.
In late August of this year, the VHPA held its annual reunion in Washington, D.C. As part of the reunion this year they hosted a Gold Star Families breakfast. Gold Star families are those who have lost one of their immediate family members during wartime. They have their own service flag. Early on the flag would bear blue stars, representing each member of the family serving in the military. If, during wartime, one of the family members died, the blue star would be replaced with a gold star.
For many of the Gold Star Family members invited to this year’s VHPA reunion, this was the first time that they had had the opportunity to speak to others publicly about their “wounds,” the holes in their hearts, and in the family fabric. They found themselves, finally, in the company of others who shared the same realities.
Julie Kink was one of those in attendance. She lost her brother, David, a 19 year old Warrant Officer, when he was killed in action in 1969.
She, like so many of the others at the reunion spoke of how the families were often alone in their grief.
When their loved ones fell, they were mourned by their brothers-in-arms there in Vietnam. But when the bodies came home from Vietnam, the families mourned their loss and had to come to grips with it alone.
Most of them had no military background and the only connections they had with the military were severed as soon as their loved one was buried. They were so often filled with unanswered, even unanswerable questions. Often their neighbors, even other extended family members avoided talking about those things for a variety of reasons, good and bad.
Julie Kink’s experience was like so many of the others there. She was her brother David’s younger sister. At the Gold Star Families breakfast she said:
“I still don’t remember my brother’s voice…how long his fingers were…how his flight jacket felt. But I’ve learned about my brother and his service in Vietnam by finding his fellow aviators…the pilots who shared his last mission, and the families of those who also died. Today I know not only how David died, but more importantly how he lived.”
Her words expressed what so many of the other Gold Star Families were feeling after meeting each other and having the opportunity to talk with the pilots who served with, and remembered their fallen family members.
The experience that the Gold Star Families of the Vietnam Helicopter Pilots Association demonstrates how important it is for all of us to remember that when a soldier, sailor, airman, Marine, or Coast Guardsman falls on the battlefield, there is a family back home that has been forever affected by that loss in a very intimate and uniquely personal way. We must never forget that both the fallen hero, and the families they left behind, paid a great and heavy price in service to the country.
Many of those families are still enduring the fact that their loved ones are still MIA, missing in action. These Gold Star Families are casualties of war as well. They must not be forgotten.
We here at The Veterans Site wish to honor the Vietnam Helicopter Pilots Association for their valor and service. We also want to honor all of those Gold Star Family members who carry the deep and ever present wounds of loss in their hearts and minds every day. You are in our thoughts and prayers. We will not forget you, or your family members who gave their all in service to the nation. You are as much a part of our veteran family as they were.