By Angela Covo
SAN ANTONIO -- Mary Laureana Aguirre Garza tells the story of the singular moment that changed her life forever -- the day she called her new best friend in the United Service Organizations (USO), a private, non- profit organization that provides morale and recreational services to members of the U.S. military -- she could only say, "I need a Gold Star banner."
During World War II, families would put banners in their windows, white banners with a red outline and a blue star that represented a loved one fighting in the war. As time passed, the tradition evolved, and families whose loved ones died at war would symbolize their grief and pride in their hero by covering the blue star with a gold one.
On August 1, 1947, an Act of Congress created the Gold Star Lapel Button as a recognition given to widows, widowers, parents and next of kin of members of the Armed Forces who lost their lives in battle.
Aguirre did not know about the banners or the significance of the Blue and Gold Stars until August of 2006, when her son and hero, Nathaniel Aaron Aguirre, was to come home for a visit after spending 9 months as an Airborne Combat Medic in Iraq.
"There weren't many resources for parents of soldiers, and I felt very disconnected when he left for Iraq," she explained. "I was desperate because the fighting had been very fierce, and I felt lost, but I discovered the USO."
They created that needed connection for her, keeping her grounded and connected to her son. One of her USO friends, who had become very dear, helped decorate the house for Nathaniel's visit and suggested a blue star banner for the window, explaining its meaning.
Nathaniel came home that August, and enjoyed his family and his mother's delicious Mexican cooking, which he loved. That wonderful visit was the last time Mary Aguirre would see her only son.
On Oct 22, 2006, an officer and a chaplain came to their door, minutes after they got home from church. Aguirre remembers the family celebrated her ten-year anniversary as a survivor of breast cancer that weekend. She was wearing a pink dress and a pink hat.
She knew something was terribly wrong the second she saw them - and moments later, her worst fears were confirmed. The visitors gently explained that hours earlier, Nathaniel, 21, died of injuries sustained when his patrol encountered enemy forces in Baghdad.
"You never forget that day," she said, emotion clouding her voice.
When she speaks of Nathaniel, however, her voice rings with strength and pride.
The American hero was a young patriot
"He was outgoing, fun, a people magnet - he loved life and had such a happy spirit that made him friends everywhere he went," she said. "But he was also extremely humble in his service to the military, and so very patriotic."
It was that deep sense of patriotism that drove Nathaniel to join the military at the age of 17, in the wake of 9/11. "We were upset because he was supposed to go to Texas A & M, but decided to put off college to serve in the Army first," she explained.
He also understood the risks he would be facing. "I remember he said, 'Somebody's got to do it, Mom, somebody's got to face the enemy,'" Aguirre added.
The Army was Nathaniel's formula for success. He excelled in his training, won awards, and was even handpicked to be the Commander's medic, a huge honor. Aguirre says he grew to be a man in the military and he was reaching and fulfilling his potential.
"I am so grateful to the military, they honored my son before and after he was killed," she said.
When Nathaniel died, however, Aguirre quit going to the USO, and quit many of the activities that had sustained her in the past. She couldn't go through the reams of mail, or even deal with her son's death.
Her daughter Melissa Nicole Aguirre, Nathaniel's younger sister, stayed in college after her brother died - but suffered a great deal emotionally, plus the added toll of the many services and memorials that came after. Now at Texas Women's University in the competitive nursing program, she often graces the President's List and honors her brother with her work ethic, drive, and determination.
"She's a fighter like her brother," Mary said.