Jack Walker Published

WVU Journalism Alum Discusses W.Va. Gold Star Families

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. White and her husband have filled their home with memorabilia honoring the memory of their sons Bobby, who was killed in action in Afghanistan, and Andrew, who died due to complications with post-traumatic stress disorder.
Emily Zirkelbach/West Virginia University Reed College of Media

Nearly 20,000 active-duty military service members died from 2006 to 2021. That’s not to mention the tens of thousands of veterans who died from physical and mental health issues tied to their service.

Dubbed “Gold Star families,” the loved ones of service members who die are left with grief that can last a lifetime. But many of these families turn their hardship into an opportunity to help others in need.

Emily Zirkelbach is a recent graduate of West Virginia University’s (WVU) Reed College of Media, and an incoming second lieutenant with the United States Air Force.

For her capstone project, Zirkelbach sat down with several Gold Star families across the Mountain State to discuss their work supporting local veterans and families in grief. She spoke with West Virginia Public Broadcasting Reporter Jack Walker to discuss what she learned.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Walker: Emily, we’re here today to talk about your story on Gold Star families in West Virginia. To begin, could you tell me a little bit about yourself, your background and studying journalism at West Virginia University?

Zirkelbach: My name is Emily Zirkelbach. I am a WVU alumna, and I majored in journalism, where I grew my love for storytelling. At the same time, I was going through the AFROTC program with the Air Force, and that’s where I recently commissioned. So I’m now a second lieutenant with the Air Force, so that’s really cool. I found this story through some colleagues that are in the Arnold Air Society program, which is affiliated with the Air Force. They were doing their community service project with Gold Star families. Through that, I started researching and getting involved with the project. That’s where I met Shirely White and Terry Cunnigham, who were previous and current chapter presidents. It really just took off from there.

Walker: Could you explain what a Gold Star family is, and what that organization does for the veteran community here in West Virginia?

Zirkelbach: So a Gold Star mother or a Gold Star family is one that has had a child or a family member pass away during military service. These members have either died in action or, in other cases, passed away from lingering issues after coming home. For example, according to the Gold Star family registry, there’s about 7,395 Gold Star families in the state of West Virginia alone. But these are just the families that have registered with the organization, and this doesn’t really count the people that have lost loved ones that have not registered with the program.

Walker: You mentioned earlier that Shirley White and Terry Cunningham are two people highly involved in Gold Star organizations or families here in West Virginia. Could you tell me a little about them, how they got involved in this program and what their stories are?

Zirkelbach: Shirley lost two of her boys, Bobby and Andrew, to military service. Bobby was lost in Afghanistan in 2005 due to an attack on his convoy, and Andrew was lost in 2008 after he came home due to complications [with] post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Terry lost her son Robert in 2018, also due to complications of PTSD.

Walker: What are some of those resources that these Gold Star mothers and Gold Star families offer to people who have lost loved ones?

Zirkelbach: There’s two different levels with the Gold Star program. There’s a national level and a local level. The national level is supported federally, and they have larger projects that they can do, like [giving] scholarships to students, [naming] highways after local heroes, erecting monuments, et cetera. Anything further that the local chapters want to do is — they’re categorized as a nonprofit. They have to be supported by donations and fundraising. That kind of affects the resources that the local level has. For example, the chapter here in West Virginia was rechartered in 2012 by Shirley White and her colleague Emma Johnson, and they started with five members. They’ve been able to increase that group by about 16 more members up until 2018, and it’s still growing to this day. So that’s part of why I wanted to do this story, to bring awareness to the program and the resources that they offer so that they can keep doing the great work that they are.

Walker: What are some of the things that the West Virginia Gold Star Mothers do in their chapter?

Zirkelbach: So, in my communication with the mothers, they told me that specifically their mission is to support the veterans in their community. They help them with things like paying their bills. They bring them food and water and things like that. I had the privilege of joining them on one of their activities where they were serving lunch to some disabled veterans that were taking part in a Challenged Athletes of West Virginia event, where the veterans were able to ski with specialized equipment that works with their specific disability. That was a really awesome experience. They told me that they want to help these veterans because their sons were never able to be veterans, and so it’s really important for them to be involved in that program.

Walker: What was your experience like bringing this story in, meeting these mothers and families and talking to them?

Zirkelbach: It was an extremely emotional experience. I was able to complete the story based on the contribution of a lot of different people, and each of them has their own stories. I learned so much in such a short time and really got to know the community of these people. They’re some of the most kind-hearted, strong-willed and dedicated people that I’ve come to know. Each of these moms and families have given the ultimate sacrifice. I don’t think I could put into words — let alone understand for myself — what these mothers and families have been through. But they get up each day looking for ways to be of service to the people in their community, and that really inspires me.

Walker: If there’s one thing you could say to wrap up the moral of this story and their work, what would it be?

Zirkelbach: Something that the mothers said to me that really resonated was, “You die twice: [Your] physical death, and when your name is no longer said.” What these mothers want is to have their children’s names said, and to have their children remembered and keep their spirits alive. Really, that was the purpose of this story. To get people to know these families’ stories and have their children’s names said.