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Those in the line of duty risk everything they have to protect this country, sometimes offering their own lives to ensure our continued safety and freedom. Relatives and friends mourn, time passes and wounds heal, and there’s the ever-looming fear of being forgotten. This is why memorials honoring fallen soldiers are so important; they ensure that the brave men and women of this nation are never truly left behind.
The tragic deaths of our soldiers shake a nation and, more significantly, the fallen soldiers’ families. Those who have lost relatives in the military have been dubbed Gold Star Families, a term first used in World War I, when a gold star was placed over a service flag’s blue star, signifying that the soldier was killed in combat. The symbol of a gold star has grown more renown since then, with many family members opting to wear a gold-starred lapel pin to show support and serve as a visual reminder of their loved one’s sacrifice. Various Gold Star organizations have come to fruition, offering aid to struggling families and paying homage to those who’ve passed.
One such organization is The Hershel “Woody” Williams Congressional Medal of Honor Education Foundation, the seeds of which were first planted when a young boy named Hershel Woodrow “Woody” Williams was 18 years old. Pearl Harbor had just been bombed, casualties were high, and the United States was thrust into the depths of World War II. Feeling a sense of patriotism and duty, Woody joined the Civilian Conservation Corps, a public relief program for unemployed and unmarried men to help out on the home front. Woody, for one, was often tasked with delivering the death notices of fallen soldiers to families throughout West Virginia. It was during this time in his life that he witnessed the grief and turmoil of loss firsthand, and it rattled him to his core. It was unlike anything he had seen up until that point.
For well over a year, Woody attempted to join the military in order to fight against the horrors he had read about overseas but was consistently denied because he didn't meet the height requirements. When regulations changed, Woody was able to join the Marine Corps in 1943, and in February of 1945, Woody took part in the Battle of Iwo Jima, where he earned the Congressional Medal of Honor for his successful attempts at fighting off machine gun fire with nothing more than a flamethrower and a small division of riflemen at his side. After fighting for five weeks straight, Woody was injured by shrapnel and relieved from duty, earning him a with a Purple Heart.
He served a total of 26 years before ultimately retiring in 1969, but he wasn’t finished with the military just yet. No matter how much he tried, Woody couldn’t forget what he had seen in his youth, delivering death notices and watching families consumed by anguish at the grave news of their fallen loved ones. So to try and help where he could, Woody became a Veterans Affairs counselor, helping other veterans and their families. He loved his job and how he was able to help struggling individuals. He did this for 33 years before retiring from the workforce for good.
In 2010, at 87 years of age, Woody helped found the non-profit organization to carry on his legacy to honor fallen soldiers and Gold Star Families by “assisting in the promotion, creation, and implementation of Gold Star Families Memorial Monuments in every State throughout the country and in many communities.” Not only would such monuments allow family members to grieve, but help give deceased soldiers the recognition they deserve. Woody’s foundation is also known to offer scholarships to Gold Star Children, to help organize public events, and to provide resources to educate the public about the importance of Gold Star programs.
The Foundation is run by six individuals and their support staff. There's 96-year-old Woody, of course, as the figurehead and five grandsons who jokingly say try to keep up with him. With their experience of funding and placing the monuments, they welcome ANY community wishing to host one and help them during the entire process. They have one requirement of the host committee, that at least one of the members be a Gold Star Family member.
The monuments themselves look similar from the front, but tell a unique story of each community on the back, of Homeland, Family, Patriot, and Sacrifice. And the central cutout figure "represents the Loved One who paid the ultimate sacrifice in the name of Freedom."