Jan 29 2021
Hilary Decent | Chicago Tribune
From the American Doughboy statue in Burlington Park to Veteran’s Valor at Central Park, Naperville has many places to remember those who lost their lives fighting in wars to defend our country.
But there is nowhere in the entire state that honors the sacrifice paid by their families.
This year a grassroots effort by local citizens and the Naperville Park District aims to correct that by installing Illinois’ first memorial to Gold Star families at Veterans Park on Gartner Road.
The idea began about 18 months ago when Lew Breese, former commander of the Judd Kendall VFW post, attended the 20th anniversary dinner of the Medal of Honor Foundation.
“It was there I met Woody Williams,” Breese said. “Of the 13 living Marines who have been awarded the Medal of Honor, Woody is the oldest at 98. He received the medal for his actions on the Island of Iwo Jima in World War II.”
Breese said that as he spoke with Williams, he remembered a story that his mother had told him. While he was on his second tour in Vietnam, she and his father saw a Marine Corps staff car pull into their driveway.
“After about 15 seconds, which she told me felt like an eternity, they pulled out of our driveway and went down to the next block and told Mrs. Bronconto that their son been killed in action,” he said. “The emotional pain that they must have felt has been etched in my mind.”
A fundraising campaign to pay for the memorial in Naperville is already underway. Since the project was launched in November, $5,000 has been raised towards the $97,000 needed.
“It seems like a lot of money but if each of residents donated 75 cents we would be well over our goal,” Breese said.
Jennifer Slown, co-chair of the Gold Star Committee and a captain in the U.S. Marine Corps Reserve, told me: “The memorial will honor the loved ones of service members; the people that carry the burden long after war is over. Families whose loved ones will never again be there to celebrate Christmas or birthdays, who they miss every day.”
When erected, the monument will be six feet tall and 16 feet long, with both sides fabricated from black granite. A silhouette of a military service member will stand in the center.
One side will bear a large gold star with the words “Gold Star Families Memorial Monument … A tribute to Gold Star Families and relatives who sacrificed a Loved One for our Freedom.”
The other will tell a story through four granite panels engraved with the words Homeland, Family, Patriot and Sacrifice. Each scene will paint a reflection of the community’s Gold Star families and their fallen heroes. A granite marker will educate visitors about the meaning.
Currently there only 76 of these memorials nationwide, with another 73 in progress. This will be the first in Illinois.
Retired firefighter Marty Walker, synonymous with all things patriotic in Naperville, is not only a longtime member of the city’s Exchange Club but also an honorary member of the Gold Star Family Memorial board.
“I am honored be part of Gold Star family memorial,” he said. “For me, it is impossible to imagine losing a loved one for America’s freedoms. These moms, dads, husbands, wives, brothers, sisters and other family members have silently gone on in their lives living with a massive hole in their hearts. God bless them all for their sacrifices.”
Walker says his role as a team member is to assist with community financial support and to raise awareness about Gold Star families.
“We have always recognized them during our Memorial Day parade and the annual 9/11 remembrance ceremony,” he said. “We need to create a lasting memorial to always pay honor to our precious Gold Star family members.”
For committee member Jan Bienfang, the project is personal. One of nine children who grew up in Greenwood, Wisconsin, she lost her oldest brother Gary Drux in the Vietnam Four years ago the local VFW named their post in Drux’s honor.
“I never thought of myself as a Gold Star family member until about three years ago, when someone from the VFW told me I was,” said Bienfang, who now lives in Naperville.
A member of the ROTC in college, Drux was drafted as an officer. He died in October 1966 at the age of 28 while on a search-and-destroy mission.
“He was a captain leading the search,” said Bienfang, who was 19 at the time. “It was very, very hard on us but he died a hero.”
She remembers the day her brother’s remains were brought home.
“An army captain stood by the casket the whole time,” she said. “That was very comforting for my parents, but they never really got over it. It was awful.”
Bienfang believes it’s not only important to remember those who paid the ultimate sacrifice defending the country, but also the families they left behind.
“Servicemen give a lot up and there is recognition for that service,” she said. “But many people left behind never get over that.”
Naperville has lost 126 men and one woman in service to our country since the Black Hawk War in 1832. That loss means 254 parents, 508 grandparents and an unknown number of spouses, children and siblings were also affected.
For more information about the memorial and how to donate, go to hwwmohf.org.
Hilary Decent is a British freelance journalist who moved from England to Naperville in 2007.