For the past year, retired Navy Sr. Chief Petty Officer Keith Sherman has been on a mission collecting stories of the fallen from the people who knew them best: their families.
Sherman, who served in the Navy for 26 years, has trekked across the U.S. with a tent attached to the roof of his car to meet and interview Gold Star families, relatives of service members who died in an active duty status.
After months of a nomadic lifestyle traveling from state to state since September 2018, Sherman is in the final stages of interviewing families before these stories are adopted into the National Archives at the Library of Congress for his project called Gold Star Dirt. Sherman, a dirt bike aficionado, named the project after his intended mode of transportation. However, he opted to drive a car, but travels with his dirt bike in tow and rides when he can during his journey.
“The fallen — they are more than just a name,” Sherman told the Military Times.
“There’s a story behind that name,” Sherman said. “There was love, there was hope, there were dreams, there were families. There were mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, husbands and wives and children, and those loved ones are still left today dealing with the tragedy that they may have occurred years ago. And every day for them is Memorial Day.”
After losing multiple friends in combat and suicide due to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, Sherman said he was left with feelings of guilt and was diagnosed with PTSD while still active duty.
As he was undergoing treatment for PTSD in 2018, Sherman started developing plans to visit the hometowns of those he knew who had died and meet with their families.
He also connected on LinkedIn with Kristine Flores, a producer for NBC Bay Area in San Jose, California. A Gold Star sibling herself, Flores was intrigued by the project and she now assists Sherman remotely as a producer for Gold Star Dirt.
“Something that I come across as being a Gold Star family member for the last 14 years...is that not a lot of people know what a Gold Star family is,” Flores told the Military Times.
“Gold Star families just want their loved ones to be remembered,” she added. “And so, by collecting their stories, we’re honoring the sacrifice and the legacy.”
Flores said she and Sherman started brainstorming ideas for the project starting in February 2018.
“The more we started talking and brainstorming, we decided that, why stop there?” Flores said. “Why not open it up, and if we’re going to do the project, do it big. It just evolved into ‘why don’t we go to every 50 states?’”
By August 2018, Gold Star Dirt was recognized as a nonprofit organization and Sherman conducted his first interview in Colorado in September 2018. Sherman was on terminal leave at that point, just ahead of his retirement from the Navy in October 2018.
The Library of Congress confirmed to the Military Times that Gold Star Dirt was collecting stories as part of the Gold Star Family Voices Act that was passed in 2016. The Library of Congress said Sherman submitted 20 Gold Star oral histories in June, and is expected to submit another 30 to represent all 50 states before the project wraps up in November.
For some Gold Star families, this is the first time they’ve opened up about their loss with a member of the media, or someone working on a project like Sherman is. Linda Dillon, whose son Army Cpl. Benjamin Dillon was killed in Iraq in October 2007 after insurgents attacked his unit, said she didn’t speak to reporters about her son’s death when he first died.
The prospect of talking to Sherman made her a little apprehensive as he visited more states and started to approach her home state of Ohio.
“It kind of scared me as he got closer...because I know that this has been 11 years since Ben was killed, but wow — it is still just as hard to talk about it,” Dillon told the Military Times.
“Absolutely, I’ve had just some amazing things happen in our lives since Ben, so it was good for me to have to do that, but hard,” Dillon said about her interview with Sherman. “And I know every parent has to feel that same way, sharing that story.”
Dillon, who said her family has utilized the Library of Congress to learn about their family’s history, said the project is an example of how the fallen will always be remembered.
“As a military family, and Ben being a Ranger, that’s what they talk about the most — that you can never forget,” Dillon said.
“That’s one of the major pieces that they promise us when they join the military, that they will never be forgotten. Memorial Day, Veterans Day — that’s the purpose of all those [days],” Dillon said.
Benjamin Dillon, 22, was assigned to the 3rd Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment at Fort Benning in Georgia.
A donation ceremony is slated for Nov. 1 in Washington, D.C., where the legacy stories will be adopted into the National Archives at the Library of Congress. Sherman has launched an effort to try to fly 50 Gold Star families to Washington, D.C. for the ceremony, appealing to figures including Ellen DeGeneres to help finance the trip.
In the meantime, Sherman has a few states to visit before the project concludes, including Hawaii and Alaska, before he makes his final stop in Massachusetts. His plans once the project is completed are uncertain, but he said he expects to go back to school and likely study journalism.
For those who watch the Gold Star Dirt interviews, Sherman hopes that they come away with a better understanding of Gold Star families and the sacrifices of the fallen.
“I hope that they can have a better understanding of a part of the fabric of America and what makes up the nation,” Sherman said about those who follow his work.
“There’s people throughout our society that deal with this every day, the pain doesn’t diminish. The pain doesn’t diminish at all,” Sherman said. “It’s always there. I would just hope that people would understand what a Gold Star family is, and then maybe take the time if they see one...talk to them about their loved one.”