There were shimmering stars and yellow carnations over the green cliffs of the Capital City.
It was National Gold Star Mother’s Day, a time to remember the parents and families of U.S. service members who never came home.
In wartime, a gold star designates a loved one lost in the line of duty.
“God bless the memory of the fallen,” said Sandra Deraps, a member of Annunciation Parish in California. “Their devotion was without limit, their courage was beyond measure.”
About 100 people attended the nondenominational observance, some gathering around the fountain and reflecting pool, some on the nearby lawn and around the Capitol Circle.
Valley of tears
Mrs. Deraps became a Gold Star Mother in May of 2006, when her youngest son, U.S. Marine Lance Cpl. Leon Deraps, was killed in action in the Al Anbar Province of Iraq.
He was 19. His earthly remains are at rest in Assumption Cemetery in Cedron.
Mrs. Deraps is now part of “a family of mothers whose children have paid the ultimate sacrifice,” she said. “Their duty was to protect the freedom and liberties we enjoy today. We don’t want our nation to ever forget their precious lives, the cost of service to this nation.”
She said Gold Star Mothers find strength in working together to assist veterans and people who are currently serving in the military, as well as their families and communities.
“Grief can only be healed by doing good for someone else,” she stated. “Not only Gold Star Mothers, but the entire nation can heal by serving veterans and their families, aiding wounded warriors, honoring the memory of the fallen, promoting service to our country, teaching lessons of patriotism, inspiring respect for our country, and supporting all Gold Star Mothers and families.”
After her son’s death, Mrs. Deraps got involved with several local organizations, including Marine Parents, which sends care packages to deployed troops, and Operation Bugle Boy and Wreaths for Heroes, which honor veterans.
“Our mission is to continue their mission of service and sacrifice,” she said.
As part of the ceremony, Mrs. Deraps helped place a wreath of yellow flowers next to the U.S. flag, to honor the war dead and their families.
“Live your life worthy of their sacrifice,” she told the assembly. “God bless our service men and women. God bless the memory of the fallen. God bless our Gold Star Families, and God bless America.”
Jefferson City Veterans Council President Donald Hentges, a member of St. Martin Parish in St. Martins, told of his nearly half-century quest for the family of a fellow U.S. soldier who died in combat in Vietnam in 1968.
Mr. Hentges and Willie McVea had become close friends while serving in an infantry unit.
Mr. McFey was mortally wounded in an explosion. Mr. Hentges was with him when he died.
“I made Willie and myself a promise that day,” he said. “I promised I would make sure he was never forgotten.”
Mr. Hentges narrowly escaped death shortly thereafter and spent months in military hospitals.
His belongings, including his contact information of Willie’s family, never caught up with him.
He wrote letters through the years to people in Texas named McFey but never heard back.
An internet search eventually revealed the location of his friend’s burial place in Austin.
A fellow Vietnam veteran then helped him contact Willie’s widow, Bettye, in 2016.
The following year, Mr. Hentges and his wife, Lillian, went to meet Bettye and hers and Willie’s youngest daughter, Kimberly.
They were 22 and 5, respectively, when Willie died.
“A lot of tears were shed that weekend and a lot of questions answered,” said Mr. Hentges. “I was shocked at how little they knew about what happened that day and about how Willie was killed.”
Since then, Mr. Hentges has tried to fathom the loss his friend’s family experienced.
“We not only owe those who gave their life a debt we can never repay, but we also owe their families,” he said.
“We need to honor and remember all those killed in action, and their families, every day,” he stated. “We owe it to them to be good citizens and get involved in our community.”
Committee member Sharon Naught spoke of the recently launched fundraising campaign to build a Gold Star Families Memorial Monument on the Capitol grounds.
There are currently 66 such monuments in 45 states, plus Guam.
Local author Jeremy Amick gave a reflection on Gold Star Families, followed by the playing of “Taps” by a local bugler.
Afterward, Mrs. Deraps distributed flowers from the wreath to relatives and fellow Gold Star Mothers.
Mr. Deraps spoke with conviction of his son’s desire for his family to forgive the person who took his life.
He likened his son’s intercession in heaven to the Marine Corps’ and Navy’s provision that even the lowest ranking Marine on a ship can “request mast” — meaning he or she can take his or her grievances straight to the highest ranking commander on a ship or base.
“I tell the other Marines that he died on duty, so he was never relieved of his duty,” Mr. Deraps explained. “So if you have a special problem, you can take it to Leon and he will take it to the Highest Authority.”