Event connects Gold Star Families, kin of those who died in military service

By Rick Rojas
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 25, 2010; C01

An indescribable pain consumes two Maryland mothers as they approach the anniversaries of their entrance into a network of families they hoped never to join: those with children killed in war.

On Aug. 5, 2006, Deborah Higgins buried her first-born son, Lance Cpl. James W. Higgins, 22, after he was killed in Iraq days shy of returning home. Two years earlier, on Aug. 5, Linda Faulstich received word that her son, Army Spec. Raymond J. Faulstich Jr., 24, died in Iraq that day after his convoy was attacked.

The deaths forever altered their lives. Faulstich, 60, of Leonardtown said she often wondered whether there would come a time when she could be happy again.

When her son died, Faulstich said, friends stopped calling. People tried to avoid talking about her son. She even fell out of touch with her mother, who told her that talking to her dredged up memories of Raymond.

"I had a feeling people thought I was going overboard with it," Faulstich said.

What helped her cope were other parents in the same situation. She found that the only ones who could understand her plight were the mothers and fathers who had been through it themselves, losing a son or daughter to war.

Gold Star Family is a generic term to describe relatives of military personnel who died during service. When Faulstich would pick up the phone and call another Gold Star mother, there was no pretense, no emotions to struggle to explain.

"It's an exclusive club that no one wants to be eligible for," she said.

As a way to bring these people together, Families United, a nonprofit organization that offers support to families of the fallen, held a Weekend of Remembrance in the District that included a visit to Arlington National Cemetery on Saturday to honor their loved ones.

The event also included the launch Friday of the National Gold Star Registry, a searchable, online database of those killed while serving in the military from World War II to the present. Brian Wise, executive director of Families United, said it was a two-year project started by request of the Defense Department.

John Ellsworth, chairman of Families United, said the database illustrates the large network of support that exists for families of war casualties. "We're all family," said Ellsworth, whose son, Lance Cpl. Justin M. Ellsworth, 20, died in 2004 in Iraq. "We're all connected in this loss."

It was the Gold Star connection that helped Faulstich and Higgins ease through the awkwardness and anxiety they experienced.

Faulstich smiled as she talked about how the Army transformed a mischievous boy into a man. Raymond Faulstich was devilishly handsome, his mother said. With blue eyes and a big smile, waitresses always gave him extra attention. He dropped out of high school and lacked direction. The Army, she said, gave him discipline and purpose.

At a gala for the families Friday night, Higgins, 45, of Thurmont pulled from her purse two thick albums filled with photos of James Higgins. An old soul, he knew early on the military would be his destiny. At 9 years old, he told his mother that he would be the "first active-duty president of the United States." He started flying planes at age 10 and in high school was accepted into the U.S. Air Force Academy. He joined the Marines instead.

On her right pointer finger, she wears her son's bulky Marine Corps ring. He slipped it onto her finger when he left for Iraq and told her that only he could take it off. She asked what if something happened. He replied, "Well, I didn't take it off your finger, did I?"

On Tuesday, Higgins said she will visit his grave in Frederick on the fourth anniversary of his death. She will arrive at the cemetery by 4:21 a.m. and won't leave until after 7:23 a.m. It was during that time when he was shot in the chest and died.

"I sit back and think, 'James, what would you want me to do?' " she said. "He'd say, 'Suck it up. Do what you got to do. Cry, if you must, but get up and get moving.' "

That's why she was back at Arlington Cemetery Saturday morning. Sitting on steps near the Tomb of the Unknowns, Higgins said she saw on the news that five soldiers had died in Afghanistan. Five more families paid their dues for a club they never wanted to join.

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