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Veterans Voice: Fundraising underway for memorial to Gold Star Families

Jun 14 2021
Mary Talbot | The Providence Journal

“When you lose a child, you lose a part of your heart,” says Regina Roberts.

Her daughter, Lance Cpl. Holly Charette, of Cranston, was the first female Marine killed in Iraq, in 2005.

“No one knows what you go through,” Roberts says, with the exception of other families who have walked the same path.

When Holly died, Roberts became a Gold Star Mother. She feels the pain of losing her daughter every day.

Roberts misses her daughter’s laugh, her smile, her companionship and her voice.

Holly loved to sing.

“Sitting in the car, listening to music. ... If certain songs come on, I have to sing them out loud because I know she would be too,” Roberts says.

The deep yearning for loved ones lost in service to our country is an experience that many Rhode Islanders share.

Immediate family members of fallen service members are called Gold Star Families. While it’s a designation that no mother, father, husband, wife or child wants, “There are a lot more Gold Star Families than people realize in Rhode Island,” says Roberts.

Twice a year, Rhode Island Director of Veterans Affairs Kasim Yarn joins other veterans’ affairs directors from across the country to exchange ideas and discuss best practices. At one of those pre-COVID gatherings, he met veteran Hershel “Woody” Williams, who is leading a national movement to recognize the continuing sacrifices made by Gold Star Families.

Williams was awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions at Iwo Jima during World War II. In the years that followed, he felt that “consideration and recognition of the families of those lost in military service was very inadequate.”

Seeking to rectify the situation, Williams sought the help of an architect in 2010. Together they created a monument to honor the families who have been left behind when their loved ones died in service to our country.

The first monument was in West Virginia, in 2013. It was a 7-by-12-foot black granite memorial that prominently features the outline of a soldier saluting.

The two-sided tribute bears 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 side tells a story through the four granite panels: Homeland, Family, Patriot, and Sacrifice, as described by the Woody Williams Foundation.

Williams began a mission to ensure that identical granite monuments were built throughout the country. Last Saturday, the 86th installation was dedicated in Clinton Township, Michigan, according to Chad L. Graham, president and CEO of the Woody Williams Foundation.

There are 74 more projects in progress and Rhode Island is counted in that number. Yarn reports that Williams made a “profound” impression upon him and after their introduction, he took steps to ensure that a Gold Star Families Memorial Monument would be built here in Rhode Island.

“Kasim Yarn placed an application, then it got okayed and then he sent out the word, looking for a committee to raise funds,” recounts Roberts.

She, along with fellow Gold Star mothers Sharon Serio-Valente and Lynn St. Germain Lundh, stepped forward to co-chair the effort to erect one of the monuments at the Rhode Island Veterans Memorial Cemetery in Exeter.

Serio-Valente’s son, Marine Lance Cpl. Matthew K. Serio, was killed in Iraq on April 5, 2004. The former football player at North Providence High School was 21.

“There’s a football field named in Matt’s honor,” Serio-Valente says, “but this [the Gold Star Families Memorial Monument] will be strictly for us, thanking us for our sacrifices.”

The projected cost to build the Gold Star Families Memorial Monument in Exeter is $100,000. While COVID put fundraising efforts on hiatus, the group is forging ahead in an effort to build and dedicate it by October. Letters to businesses have been mailed and cash donations were collected at Operation Stand Down Rhode Island’s Boots on the Ground event on Memorial Day.

Operation Stand Down Rhode Island has provided a lead gift of $10,000.

'Reminder of the sacrifices':Boots on the Ground display honors fallen soldiers

“We’re super excited to do this,” the organization's development director, Dee DeQuattro, said in a phone interview. “Operation Stand Down RI has been leading the way when it comes to taking care of our Gold Star Families. We were the first to give the post 9/11 families any type of running memorial that they could come to – other than the Garden of Heroes. We were the first to have an event strictly in their honor, the Gold Star Gala, and we have really taken them under our helm and brought them in and got them involved in the Boots on the Ground for Heroes event. So when they wanted to do their own thing and have a monument at the cemetery we thought, ‘We’ve got to help them out.'”

Fundraiser canceled by COVID

Serio-Valente said the monument will be for those who have lost a family member during any era.

“It’s for World War I, World War II, Korea, Vietnam and beyond. It’s for every Gold Star Family. ... We’ll be thanking every relative of someone who gave their life for our country.”

With just four months to go, the committee needs to raise $75,000 more.

“We’ve had a lot of progress in the last month and a half," Roberts said. "If it wasn’t for COVID, we could have had it all.”

A 2020 fundraising gala had to be delayed, and ultimately canceled, because of the pandemic.

How to help

You can help build the Gold Star Families Memorial Monument in Exeter by making a tax-deductible donation by mail or online. Checks should be made payable to United Way of Rhode Island, with “GSFMM” noted in the memo. They can be mailed to RI Gold Star Memorial Fund, c/o United Way of RI, 50 Valley St., Providence 02909.

Online donations can be made at http://www.woodywilliams.org/monuments/ri-veterans.html.

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