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Minnesota National Guard
Gold Star Retreat

They gathered together on a windy autumn morning in the Town Hall Ballroom at Madden’s in Brainerd, Minn There were about 130 of them seated at round tables  Some knew each other from last year, while some were brand new to this group and didn’t know how this day, this weekend would unfold

Their children had been safely dropped off next door at children’s camp and childcare Their child’s day would be spent with kids in their own age group and filled with activities, counselors and friendship from Soldiers in uniform

The adults at the round tables began standing up one by one and sharing the reason why they were there

“Our  son died on July 21, 2011”

“Our son died on February 21, 2011 of pancreatic cancer after his 3rd tour in Iraq”

“My son was killed during his fourth tour in Iraq”

“We pick up our son from Dover Air Force Base one year ago yesterday, he was killed in Afganistan”

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“Our son died on February 12, 2005 of natural causes”

“Our brother died on September 11, 2004”

“I lost my son on June 6, 2011 He was 20 years old”

“I lost my husband July 28, 2010 in an airplane crash in Alaska”

“We lost our son on January 8, 2007, while he was home on leave from Iraq he committed suicide”

“On August 27, 2010 our son was in his third tour in Iraq when we lost …” This parent couldn’t finish her statement as tears choked the words from her mouth

“I lost my son on July 29, 2006 Today would have been his birthday He would have been 25”

“We lost our son on October 10, 2010 from an IED … At least we’re in good company”

They are Minnesota’s Gold Star Families 

Minnesota’s Gold Star Retreat was held Oct 14-16, 2011 at Madden’s on Gull Lake in Brainerd, Minn  For the fourth year in a row Gold Star families came together for a weekend of healing, sharing and remembering their Servicemember who died while on active duty  

This year Minnesota author, and grief expert, Tom Ellis lead the conference and tackled topics to include; “This thing called grief, what makes mine unique?” and “Self Care and Resiliency” There were also breakout sessions with Military Family Life Consultants to connect parents, siblings and spouses together with others who are going through the same thing

One of the most poignant parts of the weekend was meal time, not because of the food - though it was wonderful, but because of the opportunity to share  Gold Star Mothers shared stories about the Casualty Assistance Officer that came to their door, and how their children still at home are coping with the death of their sibling Gold Star Dads were proud of the branch their child served in, and banter between a Marine and Navy dad was heard Gold Star Grandparents shared stories of their fallen loved one as a child

“I must take a moment to let you know that the members of the Minnesota National Guard and I continue to keep you in our thoughts and prayers,” said Minnesota Adjutant General Richard C Nash in a letter that was read to the families during dinner one evening  “It is you, Minnesota Military Gold Star Families who have made the ultimate sacrifice Your spouse, son or daughter, mother or father, brother or sister, died while serving their country -- our country -- in the United States Armed Services and for that we are forever grateful”

His comments were echoed in a letter from Governor Mark Dayton, “I join the people of Minnesota in honoring and remembering our fallen and their families left behind We will do all that we can to memorialize your Soldier, Sailor, Marine, or Airman It is our responsibility to never forget”
Minnesota Department of Veteran Affairs Commissioner Larry Shellito, (retired Minnesota Adjutant General) and his wife Evonne enjoyed a meal with the families they have come to know over the last few years, and he had a message of heartfelt appreciation for all the families Shellito also warned that while the Minnesota National Guard has funded the Gold Star Retreat for the last four years, funding cuts threaten its future in 2012  

The retreat continued Sunday morning as the families gathered in the memorial room, a place with memorials for each of the fallen  This morning they were surprised with a memorial keepsake box at each memorial that had been handmade and donated by a Mel Hartmen of TLC Toys in Andover, Minn   

State Chaplain Lt. Col. John Morris led the packed room in a memorial service, complete with a child’s sermon and communion As the service concluded, the name of each of the fallen was read and the honor bell was rung
The moms, dads, brothers, sisters, grandparents and children wrote a note to their loved one on a tag Then as they exited the building they were handed a red, white or blue helium balloon and greeted by a lone piper and dozens of waving flags from the Honor Guard

Each family member tied their note to their balloon as the bagpipe music floated through the air Then, all together, they let their heartfelt notes fly into the air, and they were left on the ground in solidarity with their Gold Star family 
The Gold Star Retreat was organized and planned by Minnesota’s Survivor Outreach Services (SOS) coordinators, Jonathan Groeneweg and Gail Springborg  SOS is the Army's long term care and commitment to surviving families of Service members who have died while serving on Active Duty They expand casualty assistance services beyond the role of the casualty assistance officer providing resources and assistance with grief counseling, benefits, financial counseling and other relevant needs for as long as the family desires

"A military death has unique, complicated, even traumatic issues,” Springborg said “This retreat provides assistance with grief recovery and allows us the opportunity to 'Never Forget' the men and women who died while in military service"

There is currently no funding identified for future Gold Star Retreats

16 Oct, 2011
Story and photos by 2nd Lt Melanie Nelson
Minnesota National Guard Public Affairs



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