They served in the Army, Navy, Marine Corps, Air Force, National Guard, Reserves. Most were young, and all left family and friends remembering someone full of life who wanted to serve his or her country.
On Friday, Durango will begin hosting more than 60 Colorado families for a Gold Star weekend, a time to remember, to grieve and to laugh about their children who have died since 2000 while serving in the military.
The cause of death varies – some died during military action in Iraq or Afghanistan, some in training accidents, others in car crashes or because of cancer, and some were casualties of war in another way, dying by suicide after coming home and struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder.
“It’s a very exclusive club that never wants new members,” said Cortez resident Harold Geer, whose son, George, died in Ramadi, Iraq, in 2005 at the age of 27. “We’ve all shared the same loss. One minute we’re laughing and telling stories about how foolish our children could be, the next moment we’re in tears.”
It was Durango’s Blue Star Mothers who had the idea to hold the statewide weekend more than a decade ago, and members have had a major hand in organizing ever since. The weekend was held in Estes Park for several years before moving to different parts of the state. This is the first time it is taking place in Durango.
Jana Schaefer, who is a Gold Star wife, coordinates the event with the help of other Gold Star and Blue Star Mothers, who either currently have or have had children serving in the military. Schaefer’s husband died in 1995, leaving her with five children aged 9 months to 9 years.
“I remember saying I was a Gold Star wife to someone, and she said, cool, what did you do to get that?” Schaefer said. “I realized then that people don’t know what it means.”
A number of families in the Four Corners will be attending the weekend’s activities, which include meals, workshops and socializing time along with a nondenominational service for the public Sunday.
“The weekend has brought comfort and solace to me,” Geer said, “and I hope I can return it. I never forget this means something.”
Every family has a story to tell.
Pat Stone’s son, Brandon Stone, died after returning from Iraq at the age of 24. He grew up in Bayfield.
“He was happy doing what he did,” she said, “and he was proud to serve his country.”
For Jill Williams, her son William McCotter’s death was a shock after he returned safely from tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, where he guarded active radiation sites. Shortly after he earned his wings to be a Blackhawk helicopter pilot, “Billy” was diagnosed, six years ago Friday, with gastric cancer. He died three months later at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., at the age of 26.
“He’s buried in Arlington (National Cemetery),” she said. “One great thing about the bond formed by Gold Star families is if someone’s going to Arlington because their child is also buried there, they’ll ask where’s Billy’s grave. They’ll leave a rose, a rock or maybe a flag, so he’s remembered.”
Donald Jackson graduated from Durango High School in May 2001 and enlisted in the Army National Guard a few weeks after 9/11. Three days after completing his training at the beginning of June 2002, he volunteered as part of his unit to stand guard overnight in areas where people had been evacuated because of the Missionary Ridge Fire. Four days after completing the guard duty, he was killed in a car crash on his way to Cortez after falling asleep at the wheel. He was 19.
“He was exhausted,” his mother, Cheryl Jackon, said. “But that’s what he wanted to do, especially in his hometown. It changed the course of our lives forever.”