Emily Zirkelbach Published

West Virginia Gold Star Mothers Honor Fallen Service Members, Support Veterans

Women behind tables ladle food onto the plates of a line of men in a log wood room. The men are lined up along the tables with plates in hand, some of them talking and others focusing on the food before them. The room has an angled roof with exposed wood beams. An American flag, Marine Corps flag and West Virginia University flag are on display. Around the room, snowboards and ski equipment are stored.
Gold Star Mothers serve lunch to disabled veterans participating in a Challenged Athletes of West Virginia event at Snowshoe Ski Resort in West Virginia on March 1, 2024.
Emily Zirkelbach/West Virginia University Reed College of Media

Shirley White lost two of her three boys in a three-year period between 2005 and 2008.

The brothers were on the same deployment cycle in 2005 — one sent to Afghanistan with the United States Army under Staff Sergeant Robert White, and the other sent to Iraq with the United States Marines under Corporal Andrew White.

It seemed like a normal day in September when the casualty assistance officer called to say Robert had been killed in action. He was working to secure election sites for Afghan citizens to vote when a group of insurgents attacked. A rocket propelled grenade was launched at his convoy, killing him instantly. 

Andrew returned home to Cross Lanes, West Virginia, dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and potential survivor’s guilt after his brother’s death. The Veterans Affairs hospital in Charleston had prescribed him medication to manage his symptoms, but he wasn’t improving.

In February 2008, Shirley White returned home from her work as a public school teacher and called out to her son. When she got no response, she went to his room to find that he died in his sleep from fatal drug intoxication derived from his issues with PTSD. 

It took White weeks to be able to start moving again. “It was like our world fell apart,” she said. 

It wasn’t until she was introduced to the Gold Star Mothers program by a friend that White started to feel some sense of “normalcy.” She now dedicates her life to the Gold Star program based in Charleston.

“This has been my therapy for the last 10 years,” White said. “Everything I do is to honor my boys.”

W.Va. Distribution Of Gold Star Families From Recent Conflicts

Graphic Credit: Emily Zirkelbach

White’s is one of 472,223 registered Gold Star Families nationwide with a story of loss in military service. There are 7,395 families registered in the state of West Virginia alone.

The Gold Star Mothers organization was founded in 1928 by Grace Seibold, a woman who lost her son, George, during World War I. Seibold realized that she needed an outlet to help manage her grief, so she organized a group of mothers around veteran advocacy. 

When White came to the organization, she embraced its mission, which included sharing the grief of other mothers who lost children in military service and honoring fallen service members across the country.

West Virginia’s chapter surged in participation during the Vietnam era, but fizzled as mothers aged out and could not remain active in the organization.

In 2012, as White started to regain her sense of self after losing her boys, she worked with fellow Gold Star Mother Emma Johnson to recharter the chapter with only five members.

The organization continued to struggle with financial stability and membership enrollment until recruitment picked up around 2015. By 2018, they were 21 strong.

When Terry Cunningham lost her son in 2018, the national organization had already expanded and changed its name to Gold Star Families, an effort initiated in 2007. The expansion in title aimed to include all family members experiencing the loss of a military service member. 

Cunningham’s son, Staff Sergeant Robert Cunningham, took his own life, but before 2018 families who lost a loved one to suicide weren’t eligible for inclusion in Gold Star organizations. As time went on, the link between mental health and military deaths became better understood, so eligibility was expanded. 

“If they hadn’t started having so many suicides, I probably would not have been considered a registered member, because that was not originally accepted,” she said. But “it’s been happening so much and so frequently.”

In 2007, when the national organization expanded to include entire families, it also began to expand its scope, raising money and spreading awareness about the needs of veterans and their communities.

It granted scholarships to Gold Star children, built memorials, created grief counseling programs for families and more. Benefits like the Fry Scholarship, which is given to children of active duty members who died on or after 9/11, became available.  

A woman sits in a chair in a living room, gazing away from the camera. She is seated in a chair and wearing a red shirt that reads "Remember Everyone Deployed." Behind her, the house's windows show trees and a porch outside.
Shirley White has served as a member of her West Virginia Gold Star Mothers local chapter since 2012. From 2013 to 2022, she led the organization as president.

Photo Credit: Emily Zirkelbach/West Virginia University Reed College of Media

In recent years, there have been a few changes to how families are able to receive federally distributed benefits.

In August 2011, federal legislation barred service members’ children from receiving more than one of the familial benefits at the same time. Lawmakers said this was part of an effort to reduce federal spending.

Additionally, spouses of a deceased military member were previously not permitted to take advantage of benefits if they remarried. In June 2021, a bill was presented to the House to allow spouses to use those benefits regardless of marital status.

The national organization is supported through federal funding. It handles national projects like sending birthday cards to children who lost a military parent, awarding 25 different $1,000 scholarships to students across the country and helping name highways and place markers in honor of local veterans.

Categorized as nonprofits, local chapters must subsidize any additional programming through independent fundraising and donations.

Cunningham said that West Virginia’s chapter receives around 25 calls each month for help in various areas regarding veterans affairs and memorial services.

“We’ve paid people’s bills. We provided one veteran with water — he couldn’t afford his plumbing,” she said. “We’ve paid for car repairs. … That’s just some of the things that we do.”

Penny Lipscomb, a previous Army Reserve member and director of veterans’ services at West Virginia University, said veterans often need more support than the local Veterans Affairs office can provide.

After fulfilling their contracts, veterans are expected to seamlessly integrate back into civilian life, she said. But that process often comes with unexpected challenges for military personnel.

Service members “always get told what to do and when to do it,” Lipscomb said. “Having that sense of freedom can be difficult.”

White said that this is where the Gold Star program comes in: providing the active, emotional support veterans need to reintegrate into civilian life.

On the last weekend of September, Gold Star families in West Virginia gather for a retreat in Kingwood that overlaps with National Gold Star Mother’s Day and Families Day.

This is just one of the state’s annual events that build community for these families. Another is a motorcycle ride over the New River Gorge Bridge, where hundreds of bikers ride together to honor the fallen.

“When it comes to basically a patriotic cause or supporting families who have lost a loved one in military service, it doesn’t get any better than that for us to show the respect we have and the support that they need,” said Sen. Joe Manchin, I-W.Va, during the 2023 motorcycle ride.

Other state-level events include planting apple orchards and hosting memorial services for fallen service members in their home counties.

Events like these are only possible with the support of local Gold Star Families or external donors, White said. Gold Star mothers and families can only raise money through donations, fundraising events and other sponsorships.

A woman looks at a staircase wall lined with plaques honoring men in military uniforms. One plaque displays a photo of a man in uniform surrounded by various medals. Another plaque is a certificate with a star and American flag on it. Above the wall hangings, a window with a stained glass image of a star filters light directly on the woman's face.
Gold Star Mother Shirley White gazes at her sons’ memorabilia displayed in her Canaan Valley home.

Photo Credit: Emily Zirkelbach/West Virginia University Reed College of Media

According to White, limitations associated with its nonprofit status make it hard for the West Virginia chapter to stay afloat.

“When we first rechartered, all of our expenses came out of my pocket,” she said.

White said that she writes grant requests to various foundations with the hope of receiving funds to participate in veterans’ affairs events they cannot afford on their own.

Despite the difficulty of raising funds for all activities and state events, the West Virginia chapter of Gold Star gave away $102,000 in 2023 — $93,600 more than it did in 2022, according to ProPublica.

When a military service member dies, Fort Knox calls the local Gold Star chapter coordinator, describes the case to them and relies on local representatives to communicate with the families and invite them to join the organization.

Leigh Ann Hill, the only Gold Star survivor outreach coordinator for the state of West Virginia, said that it is easy for families to “slip between the cracks.”

“I wish there was more that could be done. I wish there was another me … so we could do more things,” she said.

Some families, like those of White and Cunningham, join the organization to make it better. But this can be difficult for families experiencing grief.

“For some, it’s too much to handle. It’s not as bad as it used to be, but I used to go home and cry” after events, she said. “Sometimes [people] come back, sometimes they don’t. It’s tough.”

For many veterans and family members of fallen service members, Gold Star organizations play an important role in providing week-to-week support. Still, some say they aren’t yet able to do enough.

People like White and Cunningham remain motivated by a desire to leave these organizations better than they found them.

“We do this to honor our children who did not have the opportunity to become veterans,” Cunningham said. “We do this because we believe that you have two deaths: the physical death and when your name is no longer spoken.”

“We want our children’s names said,” she added.

Emily Zirkelbach discussed her reporting on this story with Jack Walker, West Virginia Public Broadcasting’s Eastern Panhandle reporter, in the June 26, 2024 episode of West Virginia Morning.