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.
But Nathaniel is not Melissa’s only role model. After about a year, Mary Aguirre finally went through the mail, and found her salvation in an informational brochure from the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS).
TAPS provides Aguirre with the support she needed
TAPS is America’s frontline resource for all who are grieving the death of a loved one who was serving our country, according to the Web site.
“I found the help I needed and learned so much about the process I was going through,” she said. “TAPS is like a family for me, you don’t even have to talk to feel connected,” she explained.
After another year of grief counseling with TAPS, the organization offered her peer mentor training. “There was no obligation or pressure, it was presented as something that was available — and I didn’t hesitate, right away, I knew I wanted to be a peer mentor and help others who were just starting this journey,” she said.
Mary explained the process of grief as described by the Kubler-Ross model in five stages: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and finally acceptance. She also explained why the first year after such a devastating loss is so hard.
“The first 365 days are full of dates, and facing those dates, like birthdays, Mother’s Day, holidays, without your loved one, is especially difficult,” she said.
Aguirre was also very clear that there is no right or wrong way to deal with the loss of a loved one because grieving is a very personal process that is different for everybody.
“I’ve reached acceptance by surrounding myself with positive people and by allowing myself to help others walk through their grieving journeys,” she added.
Her Hispanic heritage and ability to speak fluent Spanish makes her contribution particularly helpful. “Since I am bilingual, they often refer survivors who are primarily Spanish- speaking to me, and I’m glad I can help fill a real need,” she said.
Ami Neiberger-Miller, Public Affairs Officer for TAPS, and a survivor, explains the nonprofit could use help to reach those who may have desperate need.
“It would help us tremendously to have more funding in place so we could translate more of our military survivor bereavement materials into Spanish, as well as our peer mentor training program. This would help us reach out to more Spanish-speaking survivors and empower more of them to support each other,” she said.
Ami credits TAPS for helping her through the loss of her brother, US Army Spec. Christopher Neiberger, 22, who died in combat in Iraq on Aug. 6, 2007.
“This kind of experience changes you – it defies natural expectations,” she explained.
“Our grief is not just for the loss of his life, but the loss of the promise of that life.”
Through the TAPS Sibling Network, Ami was able to find someone who understood what she was going through. That’s why the program is an incredible resource.
TAPS phone lines are staffed 24/7, and those that are suffering are encouraged to call (800) 959- TAPS anytime or visit the Web site at www.taps.org.
Memorial Day weekend, Aguirre will be traveling to Washington, D.C. for the 16th Annual TAPS National Military Survivor Seminar & Good Grief Camp. The Gold Star Mother will be attending in her role as peer mentor. The weekend culminates with the Memorial Day Ceremony at Arlington.
Cpl. Nathaniel “Doc” Aaron Aguirre would be proud of his Mom’s work as a peer mentor.
“He always was proud of my successes,” Aguirre said.