A little more than a year after her son’s death, Amanda Jacobs reached out to David Keuhner of Honor Winery, whose wine-bottle design paid tribute to fallen service members and featured an image of well-worn combat boots.
“When he came to the phone, I told him my name and I said, ‘I saw your bottle of wine, and I wanted to let you know you have my son’s boots on your label,’ ” Jacobs said. “At that point, he thought I was probably trying to sue him.”
She wasn’t: The boots reminded Jacobs of when her son, Marine Lance Cpl. Christopher Phoenix-Jacob Levy, would return to his North Carolina home on weekend leave from nearby Camp Lejeune.
“He always had to take his boots off outside,” she said, “because they smelled so bad, they were just so broken down and slouched over.”
Jacobs told Keuhner that her son had been shot in Afghanistan. He asked whether Levy was OK. The answer stopped Keuhner cold; though he’d launched the winery, and later a brewery, with the goal of honoring fallen service members, he’d never spoken with a Gold Star Mother.
“I knew what we stood for, what we wanted to do, I knew all of that,” said Keuhner, who was 6 years old when his father, a helicopter pilot in Vietnam, died in a car crash. “That was the easy part, but … being a father myself of a 15- and a 13-year-old, I just can’t comprehend, I can’t fathom it.”
Jacobs already was seeking a way to help others in her situation. She worked with Keuhner as he reached out to Gold Star Families and other military community members. She’d eventually become an Honor employee.
“My job was mainly to reach out to families I already knew” about Honor’s efforts, Jacobs said, “and to find out how they felt about it. Did they feel offended in any way, being associated with alcohol? Surprisingly, a lot of them were like, ‘No, that would be great.’ A lot of them, they wanted to do something that would honor their heroes, but they wanted to know the money was going to where they said it was.”
The company expanded to beer in 2014, with taps at restaurants honoring fallen service members and packaging designed to do the same. Shortly thereafter, “we did a survey … to determine if people knew what a Gold Star Family was,” Keuhner said.
“We surveyed 20,000 people and less than 5 percent of the people could answer the question.”
That inspired the Gold Star Toast, a program that includes a variety of events at partner restaurants, but was designed primarily to give a social-media platform to families wanting to tell their fallen service member’s story. Those stories, about one or two a day throughout September, have gone up at www.facebook.com/GoldStarToast.
Honor has donated more than $250,000 to various veterans charities in about three years, Keuhner said — Jacobs’ initial worries that the outreach efforts were part of a “pet-the-vet”-type project were erased almost immediately, she said.
It’s a stance that makes up a key part of the Gold Star Toast: Alcohol, least of all a specific brand, isn’t required.
“I tell people, I don’t care if you lift your morning coffee to them. Do whatever you’re going to do to recognize these people,” said Keuhner, whose partners in Honor include retired Army Lt. Col. Allen Cage, a former helicopter pilot.