June 25 2021
Allyson Escobar | The Press-Enterprise
Becoming a Gold Star family is a recognition that nobody wishes for.
But these Inland Empire military widows, widowers, parents, siblings, grandparents and friends hope to honor the legacy of their fallen loved ones with a Gold Star Families Monument at Riverside National Cemetery.
The new monument, which will break ground Saturday, June 26, will salute the family members of servicemembers killed in the line of duty, also called “Gold Stars.”
The monument will be the latest in a series of memorials and statues at the sprawling cemetery, which already has the National Medal of Honor Memorial, the Fallen Soldier/Veterans’ Memorial and the National Prisoner of War Memorial. It also plans the upcoming American Indian Veterans Memorial.
Dee Dee Rodler, a longtime cemetery volunteer and president of the Gold Star Wives of the Inland Empire, spearheaded the monument’s design, approval and fundraising efforts with other members of the Gold Star Family Monument committee.
“Behind the death of a lost (servicemember) is a whole family. It was important, for me, to have a place for these families to go and remember their loved one, reflect on the time they had together, honor their sacrifice, and begin to heal,” said Rodler, a 65-year-old Temecula resident. “I don’t want the families to be forgotten.”
Since 2016, the committee — made up mostly of other local Gold Star wives and mothers — has raised money to build a monument behind the Veterans’ Memorial Amphitheater.
So far, enough funds have been collected to build the monument, which was designed by Blackwood Associates, Inc. through the Woody Williams Foundation. The future concrete plaza surrounding the monument will be surrounded by 21 trees — representing the 21-rifle volley — and yellow roses. The project’s total cost is estimated at $100,000.
Rodler said the two-sided granite monument will include a cutout of a saluting service member. The monument will sit atop a walkable five-pointed golden star with each of the military branch insignias. Concrete panels, front and center, will bear the words: “A Tribute To Those Who Made the Ultimate Sacrifice For Our Freedom, And Those They Left Behind.”
Rodler said the whole process — including designing the monument, getting approval from the Department of Veterans Affairs — took at least five years.
“People don’t realize there is more to the story about veterans and what many of them, and their loved ones, have gone through,” cemetery Director Peter Young said. “There’s more to the story about their sacrifice than a monument or final resting place. These men and women had long lives, and have contributed to their communities in many ways.”
Rodler lost her husband, Capt. Gregg Rodler, in a training accident at Camp Pendleton on Dec. 30, 1987 — two years after they were married. Rodler, a U.S. Marine Corps and OV-10 Bronco Pilot, was 29.
“I still remember that morning, it was a normal day. Gregg went to work on base, and we saw two planes take off above our home that day … we heard the sound and saw one plane come back. We didn’t think anything of it at first. Then, later that afternoon, we got a knock on the door,” Dee Dee Rodler said. “Nothing prepares you for that moment.”
Gregg Rodler is buried at a private cemetery in his hometown of Pittsburgh and survived by his wife and their daughter Melodee.
Dee Dee Rodler hopes to educate those visiting the monument about the ultimate sacrifice these heroes — and their families — made. She wants people to know there are thousands of different Gold Star families, including those who have had loved ones killed in training, killed while on active duty or in combat and those whose deaths are connected to illnesses and disabilities from war.
Monument committee member Millie Leslie, a 79-year-old Riverside resident, said the future monument “gives her hope.” Her late husband, William Edward Leslie, was an Air Force captain who served on multiple tours — including in Vietnam, where he was exposed to the herbicide Agent Orange. He died in November 2012.
“I visualize myself standing in front of (the monument), and seeing that hollow silhouette of the soldiers who didn’t come home,” Leslie said. “I’ll reflect on the life (William) and I had together, the sacrifices he made during his active duty, and how our love of country and peace carried right down to our children.”
Janet Williams, a Gold Star mother and committee member from Murrieta, agrees the monument is all about legacy. She lost her son, 27-year-old Sgt. Eric Edward Williams, in July 2012 while he was deployed in Afghanistan — just days away from coming home.
“Too often we give our heroes, especially the ones killed in action like my son (Eric) was, a beautiful ceremony, and then we say goodbye and everybody leaves. And then there’s that quiet,” Williams said. “We never want our child’s name to not ever be said again.”
The Gold Star committee hopes to fundraise enough so construction of the monument and plaza can begin construction in fall and so the public could see it in a few years.
“There are days where it’s just hard to keep going, and I just think of (my husband),” Rodler said. “I think he would be proud to know we were able to accomplish this for all Gold Star families, so that more people will recognize them and their sacrifice.”
What: A groundbreaking for Riverside National Cemetery’s new Gold Star Family Monument, which will pay tribute to families who have lost a loved one who served in the U.S. Armed Forces.
When: Saturday, June 26, 2 p.m.
Where: Riverside National Cemetery, 22495 Van Buren Blvd. Riverside. The site is behind the Veterans’ Memorial Amphitheater
Contributions: Checks or money orders can be made payable to: RNC Gold Star Family Monument, P.O. Box 248, Big Bear City, CA 92314. Donations via credit card, debit card, or PayPal can be made through https://www.goldstarfamiliesmonumentrnc.com/.