In the military, a blue star comes from the symbol on the service flag used to denote a family member who is serving. As such, those with active duty relatives are called “blue star families.” But in the event of a death, that blue star is replaced with a gold variant — the highest honor.
Those who have lost loved ones to service never forget where they were when they received the news. It’s something they will carry with them forever: the day blue turned gold.
HOW THE DAY BEGAN
Craig Gross was at a picnic after church with his wife on July 16, 2011. The husbands were in one room, wives in the other. As the men chatted, one asked if he was concerned about his son, Army Cpl. Frank Gross, 25, who was in Afghanistan.
“I’m not worried about him at all," he said. "I spoke with him on a regular basis and he’s in a part of Afghanistan where I think he’s pretty safe. Right now there’s 150,000 troops over there. What are the odds of that?”
Not long after, Gross received a call from a neighbor saying he should come home right now — a water main had burst in his house.
When he pulled up to the driveway, Gross saw a car with government plates and asked the vehicle’s occupants to hold off on telling him anything until his wife arrived.
“Craig, is Frankie dead?” she asked immediately after pulling up to the house.
“I just hugged her, and held her for a minute,” Gross told Military Times.
For Kelly Kowall, the day began a little differently. It was Sept. 20, 2009. She was decompressing following her stepdaughter’s wedding the night before when her phone rang. It was her ex-husband and she nearly didn’t answer.
“When I picked up the phone, he asked me if the military service members have arrived,” she said, to which she responded, "What are you talking about?
“Corey’s gone,” he said about their son, Army Spc. Corey Kowall, 20, who was deployed to Afghanistan.
Kelly couldn’t wrap her head around it. “Gone where?” she asked.
“He’s gone,” he said, with an intonation of finality.
It wasn’t until the government car pulled up and Kowall saw the headlights that everything began to sink in.
“You wish the world would just stop so you can catch your breath,” Kowall said.
‘NOTHING TO FIGHT FOR’
Krista Simpson Anderson received a call on April 27, 2013, after her husband, Green Beret Staff Sgt. Michael Simpson, 30, was involved in an IED attack in Afghanistan. He was alive but critical.
Clinging to hope, Anderson spent days communicating with doctors in Bagram. But hope faded when doctors declared her husband clinically brain dead.
Her first thought was, “What am I going to do without my person?”
The Army kept Simpson on life support and transferred him to Landstuhl, Germany, where Anderson would arrive with his family to say goodbye.
“I just remember thinking it was the first time in my life that I couldn’t fix something, or change the outcome, or just make it OK,” she said. “There was nothing that I could fight for.”
After calling everyone to share the news, she crawled into bed with him and listened to his heart — still beating. There Anderson remained until she fell asleep, praying.
“In the middle of the night, the nurse came in and wanted to wash him up and change his dressings. I asked her if I could help,” Anderson said. “She let me, and it was such a special moment.”
Simpson died on May 1, five days after the IED blast.
A BAD FEELING
On Aug. 2, 2017, Britt Harris was at work. She was newly and unexpectedly pregnant and had just given the news to her recently deployed husband, Spc. Chris Harris, 25, the week before.
The couple was looking for houses for their growing family while Harris was deployed. In the middle of a messaging thread centered around housing possibilities, Harris suddenly stopped replying.
“I have pretty bad anxiety, but I hadn’t heard from him,” she said.
She and a friend went to lunch, Harris hoping the distraction would ease her nerves. But while waiting for food, she saw a notification on her phone from American Military News that two soldiers had been killed in Kandahar.
“It’s Chris," she thought immediately, doing her best to remove the notion from her mind.
Harris went back to work and called her family readiness group, which told her they were unable to say anything until next of kin could be notified in-person. Unable to shake her fears, Harris decided to go home. A short while later, a car with government tags arrived.
“I wanted to be crazy. I wanted Chris to call me and be like ‘God, you overreacted like a crazy person,’ she said. “Instead, they notified me he had been killed.”
Ashley Bugge, whose husband, Ensign Brian Bugge, 35, served in the Navy, received a different kind of phone call that would change her life forever.
While a pregnant Bugge and the couple’s two other children were out shopping, her husband went to a personal diving course he had enrolled in using his GI Bill.
“I’ve been a military spouse long enough to know that if an unknown number calls you, you answer it,” Bugge said. “I’m a scuba diver myself, and so, I know that accidents happen, but typically accidents that happen in the water are fatal.”
It was the dive shop, and they were sending someone to pick her and the children up to take them to the hospital. They were unable to tell her what had happened.
When they arrived, she said, “I left my 1- and 3-year-old kids in the car with a complete stranger. I ran inside the hospital with my six-month pregnant belly to find out that he had died.”
GOING TO DOVER
In the event of a service member’s death overseas, the body is returned by way of Dover Air Force Base in what is called a dignified transfer. Families are allowed to attend and witness the moment the coffin is moved to a transport vehicle in advance of a memorial service.
“It was the most heart-wrenching three days of my life,” Gross said. “I think it was like two o’clock in the morning when the jet landed — my son and five other soldiers' caskets were lowered off of the plane and onto the tarmac.”
That was the last time he saw his son’s casket until it arrived at Arlington National Cemetery.
Gross, who said he delivered his son on the day he was born, was now delivering his son’s casket to the cemetery on almost the exact anniversary of his birth — Aug. 19 at approximately 11 a.m.
“I don’t think anybody could even write a movie script for something like that,” Gross added.
For some, like Kowall, that day wasn’t just about the loss of a loved one — lives had been cut short by a finite tragedy. Though she was at Dover for her son’s transfer, Kowall was taken aback when she spotted a tragedy-stricken young woman, carrying a newborn, who had just lost her husband.
“There was a young mother with an infant in her arms, and she was there with her mother," she recounted. “Her husband was coming back with the flag draped over his coffin, and I remember them letting her know, ‘This one is your husband that’s coming down.’”
The young woman collapsed to her knees, her mother grabbing the baby.
"I just remember thinking of this poor child who never got to know her father except in pictures or from stories people tell her,” Kowall said.
For Harris, that pain is all too familiar. Before traveling from Fort Bragg to Dover, she had to tell her mother-in-law that she was pregnant.
“Not only did Chris pass, but he’s going to have this baby he’ll never meet," she said. “I was worried maybe it’ll make her more upset, but maybe it’ll be like a little bit of comfort that there’s a piece of Chris still here.”
THE GRIEVING PROCESS
The death of a family member can challenge even the most stalwart.
“My faith was really tested at that point in my life,” Gross said. “I kind of came unglued. I hate to admit that. I didn’t handle it well and I started drinking pretty heavily.”
Though he’s since turned away from the bottle and towards the Bible, he says some days are still hard.
“I still miss Frankie every day,” Gross said. “I think about him every day.”
What one experiences when losing a child is unfathomable. Telling young children about the loss of a parent, Anderson says, may be one of the hardest aspects of becoming a Gold Star family.
“I said, ‘Well, you know that daddy is a soldier, and so daddy is going to be God’s soldier now,’” she said. “And he immediately knew what that meant, because he said, ‘But I will miss him.’”
The couple’s other son Gabriel was just 1 at the time.
“Gabriel has gone through phases where he’s angry that Mic had more time with his dad because he’s older, and he has more pictures with him,” Anderson noted. “He gets sad and feels guilty that he doesn’t remember anything but the stories that we tell him.”
Bugge struggled with explaining the idea of forever to her two young children. She and Harris, both pregnant when their husbands died, have only memories to share with their daughters who were born after.
When Harris' daughter Christian, who is now 2, was born, she felt a mixture of grief and happiness.
“She was this last little connection to Chris,” Harris said. “If something ever happened to her — this is all I have left of him. I’m getting a little less crazy, but she’s pretty attached to me because it’s just me and her.”
HONORING THE FALLEN
“I think the biggest fear that any Gold Star parent has is that our son’s name will be forgotten,” Gross said.
Harris echoed that sentiment.
“When it first happened, news outlets were asking me a lot about Chris’s story,” she said. “Now those opportunities don’t happen as often. But it’s so important to be able to talk about him.”
One way to keep an eye on the future while remembering the past, Kowall said, is to find a passion that can be dedicated to the memory of a lost loved one.
“Find a purpose,” she said. “Do something that helps to honor your son, daughter, spouse or sibling. If you do that, you are keeping them and their spirit alive through acts of service.”
Anderson, Bugge, Gross, Harris, and Kowall all agreed that sharing the stories of their loved ones is not only therapeutic for them, it also honors those who are lost.
Speaking about them preserves their legacy, Gross noted.
“It’s been said that the only soldier who ever really dies is the soldier whose name is never mentioned again.”
Sarah Sicard is a Senior Editor with Military Times. She previously served as the Digitial Editor of Military Times and the Army Times Editor. Other work can be found at National Defense Magazine, Task & Purpose, and Defense News.