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Honoring those left behind, Berlin breaks ground for monument in commemoration of Gold Star families

May 22 2021
Catherine Shen | Ozarks First

BERLIN – Seeing a large group of people who traveled across the state to be at a Gold Star Memorial Monument groundbreaking ceremony in Berlin on Saturday was bittersweet for many families.

“This is an important moment for us because very few people know what being a Gold Star family means,” said Dorine Norko-Manlapit of Bridgeport. “To have a memorial is a way to educate the community and spread awareness.”

Berlin’s Veterans Memorial Park will house the state’s first and only Woody Williams Foundation Memorial Monument for Gold Star Families. The foundation has erected 79 monuments across the United States and Connecticut’s monument has been in the planning stages for several years. All of the memorial sites are nearly identical, bearing the words: “Gold Star Families Memorial Monument, a tribute to Gold Star Families and Relatives who have sacrificed a Loved One for our Freedom.”

The other side of the monument will be unique to the state, featuring scenes reflecting Gold Star Families who live in Connecticut and the fallen heroes they love and remember. At the center is a cut-out that represents the loved one who made the ultimate sacrifice for freedom.

A $7,772 grant awarded to the monument committee by American Eagle Financial Credit Union in April kick-started the project. Committee member Gary Roy said the total cost of the monument will be about $60,000, which he hopes they will be able to raise following the groundbreaking ceremony.

Members of the Berlin Veterans of Foreign Wars, American Legion Post 68, and other local veteran’s organizations gathered around the park with flags while service members and families donned on uniforms, decorated vests, and caps to commemorate their military services. The ceremony began with an opening prayer by Leesa and Ray Philippon, Gold Star parents of Lance Cpl. Lawrence Philippon, a US Marine who paid the ultimate sacrifice in Iraq, May 2005.

After a moment of silence and the pledge of allegiance, Leslie Manselle sang the national anthem before the crowd of family and friends. She is a Gold Star sister of Pvt. Eugene Manselle of the US Army, who lost his life on June 19, 1968 in Vietnam.

“Today we are presented with the perfect opportunity to build this memorial and honor our veterans who have honored us by making the ultimate sacrifice to their country,” said Berlin Mayor Mark Kaczynsky. “It is also a way to say that we not only will remember them, but we will honor and recognize the sacrifice of their families and loved ones.”

That is an extremely important sentiment for many Gold Star families, including Goshen resident Dawn Marti, who lost her son, Staff Sgt. Samuel Marti, in 2020.

“There’s a sense of isolation because no one else knows what you’re going through,” she said. “This will also allow us to have a place to go.”

Many families had no idea that there was a network out there for them to connect with other families who have experienced similar losses. For Norko-Manlapit, she found out about Gold Star several years ago and it gave her a sense of connection. Growing up in a military family, her father served in the Vietnam War and after his passing, she said no one wanted to talk about it.

“Many of us lived that life. And the military on some level felt like it was no longer a community who cared about us,” said Norko-Manlapit. “But Gold Star helped us connect and reconnect with each other. It gave us a chance to tell people what happened to us and to remember our children.”

She lost her son, Senior Airman Lawrence Manlapit III, in 2018. It was on her wedding anniversary when she got the call about the news. “For a long time I thought I was alone in this,” she said. “But now I have friends and sisters who understand.”

Helen Keiser-Pedersen, president of Connecticut’s chapter of Gold Star Mothers, spoke at the event and said patience and perseverance are what keeps the families going while struggling to understand why their loved ones were taken away from them too soon. Her son, U.S. Army Capt. Andrew Pedersen-Keel was killed in battle in Afghanistan in 2013, just before his 29th birthday.

“We have to go on and try to help each other,” she said. “We have to live with the promise that we will remember. As Gold Star families, we will always be there to heal your heart, to hug you, hold your hand, and give respect.”