Fort Leonard Wood Gold Star event provides opportunities to share stories of fallen service members

Brian Hill
U.S. Army Fort Leonard Wood
Col. Jeff Paine, U.S. Army Garrison Fort Leonard Wood commander, speaks at the Gold Star Families recognition event Sept. 25 on the Maneuver Support Center of Excellence Plaza. Paine called it “moving and humbling” to see the displays set up by the Gold Star families and hear the stories of the loved ones they lost. (Photo by Brian Hill, Fort Leonard Wood Public Affairs Office)

Fort Leonard Wood’s Survivor Outreach Services hosted its annual Gold Star Families recognition ceremony Sept. 25 on the Maneuver Support Center of Excellence Plaza.

Gold Star Mother’s and Family’s Day, which is officially observed on the last Sunday of September, recognizes and honors those who have lost a loved one who was serving in the military.

Jody Carmack, SOS support coordinator and key organizer of the event, said this year was designed to focus on sharing stories.

“Sharing your story is a very powerful and necessary part of the healing process for people who are grieving,” she said. “They need people to witness the life of their loved one. By being able to talk about and relive those memories — the funny things they did as a toddler, the obnoxious little creatures they were in high school, the amazing humans they became as adults — the parents, the families, the siblings, the spouses, the kids, everybody can keep those memories alive.”

The 399th Army Band held a 45-minute remembrance concert at the Gold Star event, featuring America-themed songs and pieces performed by both the 399th orchestra and their rock band, the Rough Riders. (Photo by Brian Hill, Fort Leonard Wood Public Affairs Office)

Carmack said canopies on MSCoE Plaza gave the Gold Star families each a place to set up photographs, newspaper clippings, award citations and other memorabilia symbolic of their fallen loved one. The afternoon was then set aside for the families to visit with each other.

“That was the design — let the survivors just chat,” Carmack said. “Let them get to know the service members and each other as people.”

More than 30 survivors representing seven fallen service members attended the event, including Tina Schoenhoff, mother of Air Force Staff Sgt. Joshua Schoenhoff, an instrument and flight control systems specialist — and Bourbon, Missouri, native — who died trying to save a fellow Airman during a 2014 typhoon in Okinawa, Japan.

Schoenhoff, who was attending her first Gold Star event here, said instead of mourning the loss of her son, they were celebrating his life and service.

“It feels good to talk about him,” she said. “Nobody really discusses it anymore. You kind of push it under the table to stop the mourning, but to be able to talk about it and smile and laugh about the things he did and his personality, and then to talk to someone else’s mom, and see that she’s OK, is comforting and a blessing and leaves me feeling happy.”

Every day, Schoenhoff said she wakes up feeling thankful.

“I was blessed to be Joshua’s mom, and it’s a good feeling to know that he died while serving others,” she said. “I’m so grateful for the opportunity to talk with other moms, spouses, bring my grandkids — my son’s children — to see this and recognize that there are other people who don’t have daddies also. Their daddies have gone to heaven and they’re heroes.”

The guest speaker at the event was Col. Jeff Paine, U.S. Army Garrison Fort Leonard Wood commander. He spoke on the 100-year history of honoring Gold Star families, which began shortly after World War I, when the Gold Star Mothers Club was created to provide support for the mothers who had lost sons during the war — Congress later designated Gold Star Mother’s Day in 1936.

“The name came from the custom of families of service members hanging a service flag in the windows of their homes,” he said. “The flag had a star embroidered on it for each service member. Living service members were represented by a blue star, and those who were killed in action were represented by a gold star.”

Fort Leonard Wood and the Maneuver Support Center of Excellence recognize the sacrifices the families have made, Paine said, adding that it was moving to meet and speak with the families.

“The displays you put together, and the stories that you have shared in memory of your loved ones are very, very moving and humbling,” he said. “You represent what is sacred to Americans across our country — our collective willingness to serve each other and the memory of those who have done the same.”

Paine also shared the story of a Soldier he knew. Sgt. Scott Kinzer, who enlisted in the Army as a cavalry scout in 2001, was assigned to the 1st Squadron, 4th Cavalry Regiment at Schweinfurt, Germany, and deployed with Paine in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom II.

“Scott was such a fantastic young man and a great young leader,” Paine said. “He stepped up to any challenge he saw and he conquered it. He was humble and he was quiet — most of the time — but he was bold and courageous when needed. He had a servant’s heart, and it was a clear reflection of his family and his upbringing. I relied on Scott to ensure that our equipment, our vehicles and our Soldiers were prepared for combat patrols that the first sergeant and I led.

“On Jan. 26, 2005, we were leading a patrol to reconnoiter polling sites in preparation for the first open elections to be held in Iraq in nearly 30 years,” Paine added. “As was our routine, the first sergeant’s vehicle was the last in the patrol, and Scott was manning the machine gun on the first sergeant’s truck. As we moved through the narrow streets of Ad Duluiyah, our patrol was attacked by a series of rocket-propelled grenades, several of which struck Scott’s vehicle. The entire crew, including the first sergeant, were severely injured. Scott was killed.

“One of the hardest things I had to do was to write letters to Scott’s mother, Debbie, and to his fiancé, Melissa, but I know that that pales in comparison to the loss and the grief that they were feeling,” he said. “At the same time, they had a sense of pride in Scott’s service, in how he loved his Soldiers, and how he willingly sacrificed for the people of our nation.”

Paine said no one has given more for the nation than the families of fallen service members.

“We pay our deepest respect to every survivor,” he said.

After a 45-minute remembrance concert performed by the 399th Army Band — which featured America-themed songs and pieces performed by both the 399th orchestra and their rock band, the Rough Riders — a Retreat ceremony concluded the event.

Schoenhoff said she plans to return next year.

“This was a wonderful event and I’m very thankful for the invitation,” she said.

The parents of Chief Warrant Officer 3 Michael Reece – who was killed when his helicopter crashed during a training exercise in Poland, in 2001 – speak with U.S. Army Garrison Fort Leonard Wood Command Sgt. Maj. Sean McGlensey at a Gold Star Families recognition event Sept. 25 on the Maneuver Support Center of Excellence Plaza. The event was organized by Army Community Services’ Survivor Outreach Services office, which invites Gold Star families to Fort Leonard Wood each year as a way to celebrate the lives of their loved ones while assisting in the healing process. (Photo by Brian Hill, Fort Leonard Wood Public Affairs Office)