Point of View

Mothers of our fallen soldiers offer comfort to others

September 29, 2013 

Today is Gold Star Mother’s Day, a day to honor mothers who have lost sons or daughters in our nation’s wars. I have come to know many Gold Star Mothers, and what these women share is an indescribable bond of pain and patriotism. Their sacrifice deserves more than a simple “thank you” because these women – many who call North Carolina home – are true heroines who deserve our love.

One heroine of mine is Denise Garza. Her son, Damian, was greatly affected by the attack on Sept. 11, 2001. He came home from high school one afternoon and announced that he wanted to enlist. Garza praised God that her son was too young and would have to wait, believing that by the time he was old enough, the war would be over.

It was not over. Damian joined the U.S. Army after graduation and served proudly with the 3rd Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment. Damian was killed in action Aug. 4, 2005, in Afghanistan. That kind of loss is enough to crush any person beyond words, but not Denise Garza or her amazing family of patriots.

When I met the Garza family at an event honoring Gold Star Mothers, the emotion was too much for me. In a moment of weakness and grief, I escaped into the hall and met a young man rocking a baby in a stroller. I could tell he was grief-stricken, and I asked whether he had family who had been killed. He did and proudly exclaimed, “I want to be in the Army, like my brother.”

Sure enough, Justin Garza, Damian’s younger brother, is a soldier in the U.S. Army. His parents have shed many a tear, but they support him all the way. His mom will never forget, and she refuses to crumble. She wrapped the family’s bright yellow Hummer with images of her son Damian, the American flag and the black and yellow Ranger tab: “Rangers Lead the Way.”

Another Gold Star Mother who has inspired thousands is Debbie Lee. Her son, Marc, was the First Navy SEAL killed in Iraq. Debbie has traveled to Iraq, visited with troops and continues to stay engaged in the community of warriors around the country. She has buried her son and now painfully carries on to bury his fellow SEAL brothers-in-arms. Through it all, she has found a sense of purpose in her faith and in the determination of warriors like her son, Marc.

One night in 2008, a Gold Star Mother named Faith Zimmerman saved my life. We were attending an event in support of a veterans charity, Freedom is Not Free. We had produced a documentary film on why warriors fight, and we were there for the gala premiere. I was in no mood to celebrate. Chris, a young Marine, was one of the film’s stars. Chris lost his arm in Falluja and had tragically succumbed to the war when he came home. It wasn’t right away, but it was the war that got him. I know because he was one of my Marines. I tried my hardest to help, but it just wasn’t enough. By the time I made it to that movie premiere where we would all watch Chris on the big screen, I could hardly keep it together. I was in real bad shape and then Faith came into my life.

Faith Zimmerman is a member of that band of sisters. She is a Gold Star Mother as a result of her heroic son, Staff Sgt. Christopher Zimmerman, a U.S. Marine killed in action in Iraq in 2006. Staff Sgt. Zimmerman had already served in the Marines but re-enlisted after the attacks of Sept. 11, a story similar to my own. There I was with Faith Zimmerman that night. She seemed to read my pain from across the room. She knew I was struggling deeply with survivor’s guilt that has afflicted so many. She came and stood before me, and she clasped my hands in hers. I started to cry.

“This must be so bittersweet for you. It must be so hard for you to be here,” I offered, drawing parallels to my own pain.

“No, Ilario,” she said. “It’s easy. I’m here so you can know it’s OK for you to be here.”

With that simple invitation to live, Faith saved my life.

Thank you to Faith and thank you to all of the Gold Star mothers who remind the living it is OK for us to be here.

Ilario Pantano, director of the N.C. Division of Veterans Affairs, is a former Marine Corps infantry officer who fought in Iraq in 2004 and in Operation Desert Storm in 1991.

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