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For gold star families, an honor forged in tragedy

May 29 2022
Veronica Wernicke | The Villages Daily Sun

Dominic Baragona was working in his garden early one morning in 2003 when a scream from his wife thrust him into every parent's worst nightmare.

The sound in Vilma's voice — he immediately knew something was horribly wrong.

It is U.S. Army policy to personally notify the primary next of kin of a deceased soldier within a few hours of learning of the death.

So the Baragonas knew there was only one reason for three officers to approach their house. They fell into complete shock, Dominic said.

"Your heart just stops," said Dominic, of the Village of Chatham. "They just come straight out and tell you, 'Your son got killed in Iraq.' What do you do, you know? Your life goes before your eyes."

For the Baragonas, that life has been all about service.

Army Lt. Col. Rocky Baragona attended the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, as did one of his brothers, and from an early age Rocky was known as giver. He regularly played Santa at Christmas gatherings and was more concerned with getting everyone together for the holiday and buying a lot of gifts than getting any himself, Dominic said.

Rocky, the middle of the Baragonas' seven children, heard the call to serve the moment a military recruiter visited his high school, John F. Kennedy Catholic School in Warren, Ohio.

He went on to graduate from West Point in 1982. Rocky was a very sharp and smart kid, and Dominic was not surprised to see him go to West Point on a full scholarship.

Rocky's military career included time as a captain and a commanding officer of 19th Maintenance Battalion based in Fort Sill, Oklahoma, where he oversaw 900 troops. He was preparing for a promotion to colonel, Dominic said.

But on May 19, 2003, Rocky's life came to an end at age 42. Rocky had just completed his tour of Iraq and was traveling to Camp Victory in Kuwait when his vehicle collided with a tractor-trailer.

Rocky is buried at the famed Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Virginia, a 639-acre sacred shrine where the dead of the nation's conflicts have been buried since the Civil War.

In The Villages, the Baragonas belong to a community unlike any other where 15.6% of residents have worn a U.S. armed forces uniform, compared with 6% nationally.

Nineteen years after their son's death, the Baragonas still keep a "Rocky room" in their home that displays his service flag, pictures, ribbons and paintings.

"I'll be watching golf in here and I'll just say, 'Rock, what about that?'” Dominic said. "It's comforting in a sense."

The Baragonas also get comfort from organizations such as the American Gold Star Mothers and the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors — groups dedicated to families of troops killed while in service to America, known as Gold Star families.

"The thing about misery loves company, that's how it was," Dominic said. "We all were in the same boat."

Through these organizations, Vilma went on a free trip with other Gold Star mothers, and their six other children went bungee-jumping with other children who had lost family members. Even after so many years, the groups, experiences and support mean a lot to them, Dominic said.

Other members still call on holidays to check on them, he said.

Keeping Their Memories Alive

Locally, the Florida National Cemetery in Bushnell, 30 miles south of The Villages, honors Gold Star families with a monument unveiled seven months ago.

The Gold Star Families Memorial Monument faces the cemetery's entrance and features a cutout of a saluting serviceman and a gold star on the front. The back has four themed panels that portray Seminole leader Osceola, for homeland; a presentation of a folded American flag, for family; the flag-raising at Iwo Jima, for patriotism; and an eagle flying over tombstones, for sacrifice.

"We're the second-busiest cemetery in the country, and when people are looking at the headstones and the niches they'll remember that these warriors had families, had people who cared about them, who loved them,” said Gerard Lyons, an assistant director at the cemetery. "And when they were killed in action, those people were left behind. So we're here to care for and honor those people.”

The monument was designed by the Woody Williams Foundation, named for Hershel "Woody” Williams, the last surviving World War II Medal of Honor recipient. The foundation has been involved with the installation of 96 Gold Star memorials around the country, with 79 more in progress.

The monument at Florida National Cemetery is the first of a $10 million project called Freedom Memorial Plaza that will spread across 2 acres at the cemetery's entrance.

Other proposed monuments will be dedicated to veterans of World War II and the Vietnam, Korean and Iraq/Afghanistan wars; POW–MIAs; Purple Heart and Medal of Honor recipients; women and Native American veterans; and Special Forces.

The plaza also will feature life-size statues of soldiers giving military funeral honors and the Defenders of Freedom Wall, which will show scenes from each U.S. conflict since the Revolutionary War. A war dog monument is the next one being designed for the plaza.

The Department of Veterans Affairs must approve the plans for each monument.

"It is very impressive and it's a pretty exciting project,” said Village of La Belle resident Bob Mills, communications director for the Joint Veterans Support Committee, which has raised $170,000 to fund at least 14 monuments. "This has been pretty satisfying, particularly when we did the Gold Star families and when you meet these people who have lost a loved one.”

Five other Gold Star family monuments dot the Florida landscape at MacDill Park in Tampa; Franklin Middle Magnet School in Tampa; Trinity Park in West Palm Beach; Veterans Memorial Park Pensacola in Pensacola; and Veterans Memorial Park in Port St. Lucie.

Three more are in the works in Miami, Palmetto Bay and Gainesville.

Around 184,000 people are laid to rest at the Florida National Cemetery, executive director Kirk Leopard said. It hosts about 27 burials on average per day.

The Gold Star Families Memorial Monument is a way to show families that their loved ones will not be forgotten. "These are people who gave all they had, the final sacrifice,” Leopard said. "Whenever we lose someone in the service it doesn't just affect the immediate family. It affects their friends, especially the people they serve with. They become more than family. It's a great way to honor the families and the sacrifices they've made.”