I was driving a rental car in Phoenix during rush hour with a fellow pilot. I saw a magnet on the back of a tidy compact car driven by an elderly couple. It was a vertically oriented rectangle. It had a red border surrounding a white field. There was a solid gold star in the center.
“I’ve never seen one with a gold star before,” I said.
“What is it?” asked my buddy.
“It’s a Service Flag. Normally it has a blue star that means someone in their family is fighting in a war. But a gold star means somebody in their family died in combat.” I watched the gray-haired man and woman drive away.
I take it for granted that everybody knows about the Service Flag, also called the Blue Star Flag. In World War I, an Army Captain patented this Service Flag design to honor his two sons who were serving in Europe.
The Department of Defense says that spouses, mothers, fathers and children of military members who are serving in war can display the Blue Star Flag. It’s an indoor flag and displayed in the front window of your home or business.
In 1918, President Woodrow Wilson agreed that mothers who had children who died in the service could wear a gold gilt star on their black mourning arm band. Over time, this tradition included covering the blue star on the Service Flag with a gold one.
The Service Flag gained wider use in World War II. My grandfather served in the 78th Infantry Division. He fought house-to-house in a blizzard in Kesternich during the Battle of the Bulge. He was among the first to cross the Remagen Bridge over the Rhine River into Germany. My grandmother displayed a Blue Star Flag while he was overseas. My grandfather survived the war and taught me how to water ski, make homemade ice cream and be silly. I have my grandmother’s flag. My wife displayed that flag in our house the three times I went to Iraq. I’m still kicking. You could say I’m fairly fond of my family’s Blue Star Flag.
This month, I went to a conference in Washington, D.C. One day, I ran from my hotel to the Pentagon Memorial, where I was the only person standing there among the trees and 184 benches, one for each victim on Sept. 11. “We will never forget” is inscribed there.
The next day, I ran across the bridge over the Potomac, past the Jefferson Memorial, the Washington Monument and downhill to see the World War II Memorial. I had never been there before. I touched the stone where “BATTLE OF THE BULGE” and “REMAGEN BRIDGE” were engraved. I walked toward more words in stone near my feet. They read, “HERE WE MARK THE PRICE OF FREEDOM.” I stood facing a wall of 4,000 gold stars, each of them representing 100 American lives lost during World War II. I was short of breath, but not from running.
Now, if you see a Blue Star Flag, you’ll know what it means. Take a minute from your busy day and imagine being in that family. And if you see a Gold Star, remember.
ERIC CHANDLER is an F-16 pilot with the 148th Fighter Wing Bulldogs.