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Beacon Senior News

Gold Star survivors

Sep 01, 2018 03:15AM ● By Melanie Wiseman

Gold Star parents gather at Base Camp 40’s Pickin’ on the Pinyon Festival. From left: Kliffa Hall, Wayne Telford, Lana Telford, Dennis Hall, Brenda Daehling and Kirk Daehling.

Additional reporting by Cloie Sandlin
Gold Star: It’s a highly respected status that no one wants.

For nearly 100 years, families have earned this designation after losing an immediate family member during military service.

Wayne and Lana Telford were devastated to become Gold Star parents on January 5, 2012, when their daughter Brooke took her life after 17 years in the United States Air Force.

Brooke’s parents describe her as a dedicated and successful leader who loved her military family. Following four deployments—one to Kuwait, back-to-back tours in Afghanistan, and one in Iraq—the Telfords said she was looking forward to retiring and getting her nursing degree from Colorado Mesa University.

“The whole military world changed after 9/11,” said Wayne. “For Brooke, the last tour in Iraq was the pivotal turning point.”

Distraught by the number of lives lost, the amount of money spent and the Iraqis’ anger toward U.S. military personnel, Brooke returned home on Veteran’s Day 2011 and asked Wayne, “Dad, what was it all for?”

After spending Christmas together, Brooke returned to Luke Air Force Base in Phoenix, knowing she needed help. But it didn’t arrive soon enough.

The grief journey

“The first phone call saying your son or daughter has been deployed is the hardest one,” said Wayne. “You carry that on your shoulders the whole time, knowing they’re in a dangerous place.”

The Telfords aren’t new to military life. Lana’s father was in the Navy for 30 years and military service in Wayne’s family spans seven generations—back to the American Revolution. Brooke’s son, Uriah, graduated from Air Force basic training in February.

A veteran himself, Wayne said the public doesn’t hear about a lot of things that happen on deployments. Like Brooke, 31.2 percent of U.S. military service members die by suicide due to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) compared to 8.7 percent who die from hostile conflict.

Not only did Wayne and Lana lose their daughter, but their other daughter, Heather, lost her best friend and Uriah lost his mother.

After Brooke’s death, Wayne spiraled into a deep depression that drove him to alcohol. He checked himself into the Grand Junction Veterans Affairs Medical Center eight months later. Lana said she clung to anger for four years before she accepted Brooke’s death and forgave her.

“She was in a very dark place and I’ve never been in that place,” said Lana.

Gold Star support

September 30 is recognized as Gold Star Family Day. The Gold Star has been tradition since World War I when Americans would fly a flag with a blue star for every family member serving in the armed forces. The blue star was replaced with one that was gold if a loved one died during active duty. Now, families receive an American flag and a lapel pin with a gold star on a purple background.

The U.S. military honors Gold Star families and their fallen loved ones by providing enhanced support and outreach to survivors for as long as they need it.

It wasn’t easy for the Telfords to accept that they needed help.

“We were told that 95 percent of marriages don’t make it when they lose a child,” said Lana. “We knew we had to do this together.”

Although Lana was reluctant to go, when she and Wayne attended their first Gold Star family retreat they were welcomed by other survivors, who enveloped them in a wave of understanding and love.

Wayne said he felt “angels hovering around us.”

“Gold Star gathering are a very healing place,” said Lana. “You don’t have to explain where you’re at to anybody because they’ve been there. You learn you’re not alone.”

Finding family

The Telfords regularly attend Gold Star events and retreats and have formed a new family with others in their situation. Included in this loving group of people are Kirk and Brenda Daehling of Battlement Mesa, who lost their son Mitchell in Afghanistan in May 2013, and Dennis and Kliffa Hall of Grand Junction, who lost their son Ryan when his plane went down in February 2012.

“It’s not a family you want to belong to, but it’s the only real family that we have,” said Brenda. “They’re the only ones who understand what we’re going through.”

Although there’s nothing easy about moving along their grief journey, many Gold Star parents learn coping skills and hear helpful tips from other families. Others say their faith helps them get by.

“It’s the worst nightmare a parent can ever go through,” said Kliffa.

“Ryan knew the risks, but he served anyway, and we know we’ll see him again.”

At the center of their grief, Lana said many Gold Star parents also fear that their child will be forgotten.

“We’ll retell the stories over and over, again and again,” Kliffa said. “We won’t let them be forgotten.”

Helping survivors heal

For three years, Wayne has been a mentor with the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS) and currently mentors three Gold Star dads in Virginia, Minnesota and Arizona. The heart of this nonprofit donor-funded program is survivors helping survivors heal. TAPS contacts families within a week of losing a loved one in the military, offering free counseling and peer mentoring, and information about supportive events and seminars.

“Early on, a TAPS mentor called me and I never called him back,” said Wayne. “I was drinking and in a different place, but they are good about continuing to send you information.”

After attending his first TAPS men’s retreat in Montana, Wayne found hope for healing.

“The opportunity to be a mentor gives such validation of wanting to help others,” said Wayne. “It’s kind of an in-your-face deal. We tell them, ‘Quit digging. There’s a way out. We’ve been there.’”

TAPS mentors also make a point of contacting Gold Star families during the holidays and on their loved ones’ birthdays and death anniversaries. The program has seen a 25.5 percent increase in suicide loss survivors seeking support since the end of 2016. The 24/7 survivor helpline averages over 1,427 calls per month.

“In retrospect, I should have had a mentor because it would have made my journey a little faster,” said Lana. “I am so proud of Wayne and the mentoring he’s doing. He’s an excellent listener, very loving and honoring. I think he has found God’s purpose for him.”

Wayne is also on the Western Slope Veterans Mental Health Advisory Council and volunteers weekly at the VA, working with many Vietnam vets dealing with PTSD.

“There is help out there,” said Lana. “If you take advantage of what is offered, it’s a godsend."

Help is available

24/7 TAPS support line: 1-800-959-8277, taps.org VA Crisis Line - 800-273-8255, option 1 Colorado Gold Star families - www.ppgsm.webs.com Base Camp 40 (Grand Valley organization that takes veterans hunting and fishing) - www.bc40hunts.org The 22 Project (supporting war veterans at risk of depression or suicide) - www.support22project.org

For benefits and entitlements

Army: 855-707-2769, www.army.mil/goldstar Navy: 888-509-8759, www.navygoldstar.com Air Force: 866-299-0596, www.afpc.af.mil Marines: 703-784-9580, www.usmc-mccs.org/services/benefits/gold-star-advocates or www.goldstarfamilies.com Coast Guard: 202-795-6637, www.dcms.uscg.mil/PSD/fs/Gold-Star-Program