By Jody Carmack, Fort Leonard Wood Survivor Outreach Services support coordinator
July 15 started out as any typical summer work day does in Fort Leonard Wood’s Survivor Outreach Services office. The sun was shining outside and I was making my way through my inbox when the phone rang.
Unknown to me as I gave my standard telephone greeting, this would be my chance to help add some closure to a very long journey for Mrs. Billie Jo Williamson.
“Am I supposed to receive a Gold Star Pin?” she asked.
That question does come into our office from time to time, and I know that, unfortunately, many times there are misunderstandings. I asked her who her service member was. A hint of pride perked up in her voice and she spoke up.
“Specialist James Harold Williamson.”
I asked her if he was still serving and that’s when she began to tell me her story.
“No, he was killed in a plane crash in 1985.”
She said Arrow Air Flight 1285 crashed Dec. 12, 1985 in Newfoundland, Canada, and there were no survivors. It was one of three flights ferrying Soldiers back to Fort Campbell, Kentucky from an overseas assignment.
“I didn’t receive his body for three months,” Mrs. Williamson told me.
I hated to have to probe her for more details, but to verify her eligibility for a replacement of her Gold Star Pin, I needed – at a minimum – name, rank and social security number of the deceased.
She became quiet.
“Honey, I don’t have his social security number,” she said. “All of his possessions were with him on that flight. I don’t have any of that anymore.”
I have become pretty good at keeping my composure after being in this job for 10 years, but that one, unexpected sentence broke me. It took a few seconds for me to regain my wits. I asked her if she had lost her pin.
“No, I didn’t even know I was supposed to have one,” she replied. “A friend asked me if I had a Gold Star Pin and I didn’t even know what that was.”
In the span of less than 15 minutes, I went from thinking this was another person who, while meaning well, didn’t know that to receive one of these pins your military loved one had to be deceased, to thinking she had lost her pin and it would be routine to get her a replacement, to proving she was the mother of a Soldier whose personal effects and vital documents were lost in the same plane crash that took his life.
Mrs. Williamson patiently provided as much information as she could and thanked me for my time.
A little persistent searching on the internet brought me to a list of passengers, where I was able to confirm her son was on that Arrow Air flight. With this information in hand, I called the installation Casualty Assistance Center to see if Spc. Williamson was in the casualty database.
Yes, he was – a second hurdle cleared.
I then called the CAC Chief, Eric Adams, to see how he wanted to handle this. The appropriate Gold Star Pins are supposed to be presented to the immediate family members as part of the military funeral honors when an active-duty service member dies. In this case, these pins were never given to the family.
Two weeks and a little more research later, we were able to confirm that Mrs. Williamson was eligible to receive the lapel button for the Next of Kin of Deceased Personnel – one of the two pins commonly referred to as Gold Star Pins.
I called Mrs. Williamson to tell her the good news, but I got an answering machine. Her husband’s voice told me to leave a message. It wasn’t too long before she called me back, and right away she apologized for the old machine and the message. She said her husband passed away in 2012 but she couldn’t bring herself to get a new machine – she just needed to hear his voice from time to time.
I thought to myself: this woman has lost two of the most important people in her life and she is still able to be friendly, polite and patient with me – she is the true definition of resilience.
Mrs. Williamson was very happy to receive the news that we would be able to provide her with her lapel button. When asked if she would she like me to hand deliver or mail it, she told me she had an appointment on post the very next day and said she would like to pick it up.
I fired off an email to Mr. Adams right away to let him know so he could make a note of it in the database. He quickly replied that this was an opportunity to right a mistake made with this family so many years ago and he wanted to be there to present Mrs. Williamson with her Gold Star Pin. He closed the CAC offices for half an hour and brought his staff to the Fort Leonard Wood Hall of Honor to meet Mrs. Williamson and bear witness to this event.
More than 34 years after her son died serving his country, Mrs. Williamson was presented a simple, brass pin – what might seem like a small thing to the rest of the world has a great deal of meaning to Gold Star families. We should never forget the sacrifices our military and their families endure. Military service is a source of pride and honor. In some cases, it’s a source of pain. Sometimes the only comfort our nation can provide to the surviving family members is through the customs and ceremonies that are such a large part of our military culture.