USA Today: Military's Gold Star families often feel disconnected

By Gregg Zoroya | USA Today | | January 3, 2012

COLLINSVILLE, Okla. - Jane Horton wears a small Gold Star pin honoring her husband, Christopher, who was killed by Taliban gunfire four months ago.

"It’s like an outward expression of a burden carried deep inside," Jane says about an emblem Congress created after World War II for those who lost loved ones to war.

Except that no one today seems to know what it means.

"I’ve never been asked about it. Ever," she says.

As the 26-year- old widow of an Oklahoma National Guard soldier killed in combat, it is another reason Jane says she feels a world apart from other Americans.

She sensed it standing on an airport tarmac as her husband’s body was unloaded from the belly of an aircraft. She could see the faces staring down from the jetway windows above, parents holding children and pointing.

"I definitely feel there’s a disconnect," she says.

National leaders and advocacy groups say they see a widening rift between a military at war and a public at peace, distracted by a sputtering economy and weary of hearing about Iraq and Afghanistan.

"Not every American knows what a … Gold Star family is," first lady Michelle Obama said recently when she unveiled a Gold Star Christmas tree at the White House.

"Americans ... often don’t realize that these people are right here among us," says Ami Neiberger-Miller, a spokeswoman for Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS), a non-profit that helps military families who lose loved ones.

Public displays of gratitude and generosity can be seen throughout the country: the lines that greet deploying troops at an airport in Bangor, Maine; initiatives to build specially adapted homes for the severely wounded; campaigns to encourage hiring veterans. Non-profit groups, such as the Wounded Warrior Project and Semper Fi Fund, that assist injured troops have sprung up.

But much of what the military endures is lost on the public, then-chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and now-retired admiral Michael Mullen told a West Point graduating class this year.

"I fear they do not know us," he said.

Fewer than 1% of Americans are in the military today, compared with 10% during World War II. "Things were so different then," says Marie Speer, 90, whose husband, Pvt. Edward "Eddie" Jordan, was killed fighting in Germany in 1944, when she was 23.

Gold Star banners hung from countless homes and Americans were keenly sensitive to the meaning, says Speer, who founded Gold Star Wives of America in April 1945. "Everybody was involved in the war and it was something uppermost in everyone’s mind."

War syncopated the rhythm of life back then: victory gardens growing in backyards, scrap drives, gasoline rationing and celebrities selling war bonds.

Today, 83% of Americans say veterans and military families "have made a lot of sacrifices since 9/11" while 43% of Americans say the same of the public’s sacrifices since the attacks, according to a recent Pew Research Survey.

However, the survey shows that fewer than half (47%) of Americans say the military has sacrificed more than the public, and of those 71% say the sacrifice of servicemembers is part of being in the military.

And while a majority of Americans say they have expressed their admiration for veterans directly, 84% of veterans say the public does not understand the problems faced by servicemembers or their families — and the public (71%) agrees.

To have a family member serve in the military, much less be wounded or killed in combat, is a growing rarity in American society. Pew Research found that among Americans ages 18 to 29, a third say they have an immediate family member in the military. Researchers attribute the trend to the nation’s shrinking forces, as a smaller share of Americans currently serve in uniform than an any time since the peace-era between World Wars I and II.

Last month, when an intercollegiate legislature met at the Oklahoma state Capitol to honor Christopher Horton, delegate Philip Jackson noticed Jane’s pin after it was pointed out to him.

"That’s the Gold Star," he said. "I had no idea."

A shocking death with few details.

From the moment there was a hard, double-rap on the door of Jane Horton’s home in this Tulsa suburb the night of Sept. 9, her life roiled in ways that her civilian friends could not possibly comprehend. One instant she was churning brownie batter in a mixer and the next she was plunged into shock and bewilderment.

Christopher, Jane was told, died from a bullet wound to the head. But she wondered how this could be. He was the skilled sniper — how could he have been the target?

Christopher was so certain he would survive the war, and now he was gone.

When Jane entered a room at the Floral Haven Funeral Home in nearby Broken Arrow and caught sight of her husband’s profile in a casket, she first recognized the eyelashes, and wept.

"He had the longest eyelashes I’ve ever seen and he had the most beautiful eyes."

He looked so tranquil it was unsettling, Jane recalls. She wanted very much to know how he could have been killed.

When average Americans experience a death in the family, answers about what happened are commonly quick. The Army told Jane it would take up to 60 days before she received an investigative report on her husband’s death. She has yet to receive an official report.

Yet stories swirled within the Guard community about how he died.

"Everyone’s calling home telling their wives," Jane recalls. "I just wanted to know what the heck happened to him."

She did what war widows do - piece together rumor, media reports, a mortician’s observations and what soldiers who served with Christopher would confide, some by phone from Afghanistan.

A story emerged: Christopher, 26, was part of a nine-member squad that set up for hours in a mud-walled outpost near the Pakistan border. A small number of Taliban managed to sneak up, round a corner and open fire with automatic weapons. Christopher was shot through the left eye. He was not on watch and may have been dozing when it happened. Two other soldiers also died. Attackers were killed trying to flee.

After prodding the Army for more information, Jane received a copy last month of the autopsy report. She learned he had been shot four times in the attack, including a wound to the head.

The information was strangely comforting. "He was instantly gone and didn’t have a chance to respond,"Jane says. "I’m very thankful he had no chance to think about what happened to him."

The body of Jane’s husband arrived in the United States within 72 hours at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware on Sept. 12. But the full arc of Christopher coming home — the sacrament of laying him to rest, the ritual of receiving all the artifacts of his life at war from the Army — felt like forever to his young widow.

It would be four weeks before Arlington National Cemetery had a time slot open for the funeral. As months passed, Christopher’s belongings kept trickling home, sent by the Army — mementos left by other soldiers at a memorial in Afghanistan, a black bag containing what Christopher had with him when he died and foot lockers filled with clothing, souvenirs, snacks and myriad other items.

"It’s kind of like a mystery," she says.

They met at King’s College in New York City, two conservative kids with a passion for politics in a liberal Manhattan. They worked together on Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s 2005 re-election campaign.

She was from Cleveland, the youngest of three. He was from Tulsa, the oldest of three born to an evangelist and his wife, and spent his adolescence in a military academy in Missouri, honing his sharpshooting skills.

Christopher joined the National Guard in 2008 and was surprised that his growing affections for Jane were stronger than his long-held devotion to country and service.

"This is a little scary for me," he wrote in a letter home from basic training. "Although my love, dedication and commitment to my country is unchanged. You are my life’s number one dedication."

They married in 2009. They both dreamed that after the Army he would run for public office, perhaps even Congress.

Instead, she now sifts though his belongings as if they are part of some kind of archaeological dig: a tiny Stalin figurine he bought at a flea market in Kyrgyzstan on the way to war; a log he kept of missions he could not discuss on Facebook instant-messaging; and a Sony camera he carried with him.

There were nine pictures dated Sept. 9, the day he died. Most show young GIs lounging or dozing in the enclosure where the attack occurred. Jane believes they were taken by her husband hours — if not minutes — before he died.

The Army will return a dead soldier’s clothing washed or unwashed. The widow decides. Jane wanted them unwashed. She wanted everything as it had been with Christopher, even to smell him one last time. "But it doesn’t smell like that," she says now. "It just smells like dirt."

She wanted to study her husband’s hands. At the casket, she had his white gloves removed and recognized the torn skin around his thumbs - a nervous habit she knew quite well.

Jane utterly threw herself into memorializing Christopher.

She chose the seven-story, vaulted interior of the majestic First United Methodist Church in Tulsa, with its limestone and oak, for the funeral service. For the burial, she arranged commercial flights back East with her husband’s body in baggage. The casket traveled in a white packing crate stenciled with his name and the words "head" and "foot."

She asked Oklahoma Sen. James Inhofe, a Republican for whom she had worked as an intern, to deliver a eulogy at an Arlington Cemetery chapel. She got Mullen and Army Gen. James Dempsey, the new chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to attend cemetery services.

"God made me strong for a reason," Jane says.

On the flight home, she toiled over phrasing for Christopher’s headstone, searching for the perfect epigrams that could fit on two lines of 15 spaces each.

She settled on "Valiant Warrior/Fearless Sniper."

Through it all, there were as many kindnesses as there were setbacks.

A neighbor Jane didn’t know solicited the city to rename their street in honor of Christopher. Inhofe’s legislative assistant, Anthony Lazarski, stayed at her side during the early hours of Sept. 12 at Dover waiting for Christopher’s body to arrive. Bloomberg called to express condolences. Cleveland friends sent her specialty ice cream by mail — salted caramel and poached pear.

Southwest pilots on the flights carrying her and Christopher to the burial paid homage over intercoms, and one gave her the wings off his uniform.

But she had to ask for a new Army casualty officer after she found the first one "not a good fit." The cemetery put the wrong death date on a temporary grave marker. Southwest lost her luggage.

These annoyances Jane can weather. What’s difficult is the way people outside the military react, or fail to react on a personal level, to the sacrifice her husband has made.

Whether it’s awkwardness or indifference, the mention of his name at social gatherings or political events elicits silence or a change of subject.

"People don’t know what to say, or they don’t say anything at all," she says.

She could not be prouder of how Christopher gave his life for his country, but she feels many people are uncomfortable with the topic.

TAPS spokeswoman Neiberger-Miller says Jane’s reaction is very common among families whose loved ones died in Iraq or Afghanistan. The Gold Star is a precious commodity among them, says Neiberger-Miller, whose brother, Christopher, was killed in Iraq in 2007.

They don’t wear the pin "for people to go, ‘Oh, look at them they’re the sad people,’ "she says. "We do it because we’re proud of our loved ones and what they gave this country and we want people to know it."

Jane thought the Gold Star pin would be a conversation starter. But it isn’t.

"This is like code: ‘My husband was killed in the war.’ But nobody knows what it means."

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