If you look closely next time you’re driving through a neighborhood, you may see a banner hanging in a window: a white field with a thick red border and a blue star in the center. The Service Flag, which has been around since World War I, indicates that a family has a son or a daughter, a spouse or a sibling, serving in the armed forces during a time of war. During World War II, it was not uncommon to see banners hanging in windows with three or four blue stars as multiple members of a family were fighting overseas.
Much less frequently you might see the same banner, only instead of a dark blue star, there will be a gold one meaning that family lost a loved one in the service of their country. Gold Star Mothers are women who have literally borne the troops that have made the ultimate sacrifice. For them, the war doesn’t end.
(PHOTOS: Memorial Day Tributes Around the World)
Two years ago, President Obama issued a proclamation making the last Sunday in September — that would be today — Gold Star Mothers and Families Day. One of the women honored on Sunday was Mary Aguirre, the mother of a brave soldier I served with who was killed nearly six years ago. “It’s been six years and I have to remind myself that the reality is he’s not returning,” Ms. Aguirre says. “But the celebration is more in the forefront now.”
In her son Nathaniel, Mary Aguirre has a lot to celebrate. “They called him the Junior Toastmaster when he was a little kid,” she explains. “He could enter a room full of people and before he left he’d already talked to everybody, shook their hand, made them laugh. He loved life.”
Nathaniel grew up in Carrollton, Texas. He was a rock climber, a Boy Scout, a devoted big brother and he dreamed of becoming a Texas A&M Aggie. Then September 11 brought out a patriotism in the young Texan and he decided to serve his country first. He enlisted as a combat medic, completed Airborne School to become a qualified parachutist and joined 1st Battalion, 22nd Infantry Regiment.
Nathaniel celebrated his 21st birthday on Dec. 11, 2005. A day later, he hugged his family goodbye in a large concrete lot. “When he boarded that bus, I’ll never forget it,” Ms. Aguirre says. “He had a smile. And driving home, I had a funny feeling. It was a cloudy day, but the clouds just gleamed, and it crossed my mind that Nathaniel was going to die. I just knew it.”
Just a couple of months into that combat tour Nathaniel had his first casualty, Private First Class Sean Tharp, who was wounded by a roadside bomb and died as Nathaniel tried to save him. A couple of months later, Nathaniel lost his best friend and roommate, Corporal Bobby West. “That was really hard,” Ms. Aguirre says. “We didn’t comprehend the magnitude of the responsibility that Nathaniel had until Sean died.”
When Nathaniel came home on leave in August, he stayed out late with friends, ate his favorite foods and spent time with his family. “We had him for two weeks, and when we took him to the airport I felt it was the last time,” Ms. Aguirre says. “I think Nathaniel knew it was the last time. Because of things that happened, we did farewells as if it was the last time. The way he hugged his dad, I’ve never seen that before. A very tight embrace goodbye.”
On October 23, 2006, Mary Aguirre wore pink to church. She was celebrating her ten-year survivorship from cancer and later came home with her husband for a nice dinner. In the early evening twilight, Mary heard a knock at the door. The young man in an Army dress uniform had a warm face, but as he began to speak, Mary knew she was hearing something important. She called for her husband and asked the officer to wait; she felt they needed to hear it at the same time. “I don’t remember exactly what he said; I wish I could remember those words,” Ms. Aguirre says. “After that, I just broke down and just cried.”
When Nathaniel had been home that summer, the Aguirre’s neighbors had helped decorate the house. Their neighbor, who had two sons in the Army, said that she needed a service banner and had her son bring one down from Fort Hood. After receiving the news that Nathaniel had been killed, Mary called her neighbor. “All I said was I need a gold star banner,” she says. “She knew exactly what that meant.”
(PHOTOS: America’s Last Living POW)
Corporal Nathaniel Aguirre was killed on October 22, 2006. After a grueling first half of his tour in a platoon that had suffered several casualties, Nathaniel was chosen as the head medic for the colonel’s personal security detachment. They were patrolling in dangerous market west of Abu Ghraib when Nathaniel was shot by a sniper.
It took a long time for Mary Aguirre to work through what she calls her grief journey, a path that does not have an end. “I want to miss hearing him, the smile, the hugs, the quirky things he did,” she says. “That grief journey; the intensity still strikes you, but doesn’t last as long. Before, it’s like I would have a heartache when I would realize, wow, he’s not here. Your heart hurts and it would last. Now, it kind of hits you real hard and goes away.” She found a calling helping other Gold Star Mothers through their grief journeys, and she has spent time with many of them at Fort Sam Houston’s Survivor Outreach Services Center. Each takes comfort in her own way, and they share a bond that most Americans could never comprehend.
Mary Aguirre takes comfort that Nathaniel was part of something bigger than himself. “What a major roll in history Nathaniel played,” she says. “He was just a normal, all-American kind of kid.” But her true comfort comes from a deep faith. “I’m elated that he’s in heaven,” she says. “I get so many signals and signs I think, you have a special connection with God, my little toastmaster.”