When Blue Stars Turn Gold

By: Phyllis Sisson

I became a Gold Star Mom in July 2013, but I’m still trying to figure out this journey of what that means to be a mother who has lost her child.

My son Justin was a calm baby in the womb, usually perfectly happy to just sleep calmly close to my heart. That all changed when he was born six and a half weeks premature, and spent his first weeks in the NICU. That’s when we knew he was a fighter.

Growing up, Justin would always zero in on one particular thing in life, and be so passionate about that one thing. First, it was dinosaurs. Then wolves, pirates, and sunken ships. After that, it was a love of knights, castles, and finally, the military and its history. My own family could trace its military history back to Europe and the Revolutionary War. My father-in-law was a West Point graduate and veteran of both Korea and Vietnam. Having two grandfathers who both served in the military was something Justin admired very much.

It came as no surprise when Justin told us he wanted to be in the Army. I don’t remember how he told us, but it just seemed to be the natural order of his life. It was in his genes, and we supported him.

Justin wanted to attend West Point and follow in the footsteps of his grandfather, Brooks. After doing everything necessary, he was not accepted. Justin was very disappointed, but took it as a challenge to fight for what he wanted. He took an ROTC Scholarship to his dad’s alma mater, Florida State University.

At the end of his freshman year at FSU, Justin chose to give up his ROTC scholarship, and join the Florida National Guard. Much to our dismay, he followed his heart and finished Basic Training in the summer of 2008. A few months later, his National Guard Unit was activated and deployed to Iraq. As a full time student, Justin did not have to go. However, we were surprised to learn that he made the decision to deploy with his unit anyway

We asked Justin, “Why?”

He told us he felt the need to serve, and thought the experience would give him a better idea of what it would be like to lead his fellow soldiers in the future. Just like that, he was off to fight.

When he returned, he received the Bronze Star for his service, which is unusual for a Specialist to receive. He shrugged it off and said he was “just doing his job.”

Justin was commissioned as Second Lieutenant in the U.S. Army in April 2012.

It was a proud moment for us all. He completed Ranger School, Sapper School, Airborne and Assault, and was assigned to the 101st Airborne, 1-506th, 4th BCT at Fort Campbell, Kentucky. This was a dream come true for Justin, as he had always admired the Airborne Unit. He deployed ahead of his unit on April 2, 2013, as part of TORCH, a group sent to light the way in preparation for everyone else to follow. Just like that, he was off to another fight.

My last message to him was sent on June 2, 2013. “I love you. Be safe.” I saw that he had read it.

The next day, on June 3, 2013, Justin was killed in action in Chamkani, Afghanistan. A suicide bomber on a motorbike loaded with an IED went off while Justin was on foot patrol with his platoon. One other soldier in his platoon was killed, several others were injured. Initially, Justin was seriously injured. As medics were working on him, he told them he was fine. He insisted they go take care of his men. He was still fighting.

In the months following Justin’s death, we were contacted by many of his friends, work associates, and complete strangers who have been touched by his death. More have been affected by the way he lived his life and treated his fellow man.

As his mother, I cherish these small glimpses into my son’s life. I am grateful for this, but I am not surprised. I know my son.

One memory I keep close to my heart was an email Justin sent me on Mother’s Day in 2013. Earlier in another conversation, he told me that he had a gift for me, and that he’d mail it as soon as someone came to pick up the mail on their base. Mail pick up happened only once a month.

A month after Justin’s death, his effects began arriving home from Afghanistan. When we had finished going through everything, someone mentioned a jewelry box. I thought it was strange that Justin had taken a jewelry box to Afghanistan with him. It was wrapped in bubble wrap. Inside was a beautiful hand-made wooden box, with a gold carving on top. There was no note with it.

I contacted the mother of Justin’s Captain and asked her if she knew about this box. She responded quickly and said the box was for me, for Mother’s Day. She relayed the story to me from Justin’s Platoon Sergeant – he had been in Gardez, saw the jewelry box, and said, “That would be perfect for my Mom.”

Yes, Justin. It is just perfect.

I think it’s important for people to know the stories of Gold Star Families. Our country has become numb after years of war. Most people ignore what is happening until it happens to them.  It’s important for us to remember that our fallen are not just a number on the news. They all had lives, and people who loved them. Their loss stretches across our Nation and causes a ripple effect around the world.

As a Gold Star Mother, I know what has been lost. I know what might have been.

I hope that sharing my story will let another grieving mother know she is not alone. Others have stood in her shoes. We want to be there to support and keep the memory of our children alive.

If you’d like to support our nation’s Gold Star Families as they walk through the unimaginable grief of losing their loved one, your casualty assistance office should be aware of any Military Sponsored Support Groups for Survivors on your installation or in your area.

You can also join these amazing organizations:

Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors, Inc. (TAPS) 

Gold Star Wives

American Gold Star Mothers

Gold Star Dads of America

Posted August 2, 2016


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