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Focus on Service

Under the Gold Star:

Honoring a legacy of sacrifice

It's a family no one wants to be a member of, but one that stands united in their collective heartbreak. Gold Star families stretch the world over, families whose father, mother, brother, sister, son, daughter, husband, wife gave the ultimate sacrifice in service to the nation.

The term Gold Star family is a tribute to the service flag that families first flew during World War I. The flag included a blue star for each immediate family member serving in the U.S. armed forces during times of war or conflict. If one of those service members died on duty, the blue star was covered with a gold star. It showed the community the price the family had paid for freedom.

In 1936, the U.S. began observing Gold Star Mother's Day on the last Sunday of September, and before the end of World War II, the Gold Star Wives had formed their own organization.

Today, more than 2 million men and women serve in the U.S. armed forces, and the nation recognizes the sacrifices Gold Star family members make when a loved one dies fighting for our nation's freedom.

The following are three Gold Star families who shared their stories of love and sacrifice.

Hospital Corpsman 3rd Class (FMF/CAC) Manuel "Tito" Ruiz

Manuel "Tito" Ruiz, a native of Federalsburg, Maryland, enlisted in the Navy in 2004 as a hospital corpsman. He wanted to serve on the frontlines where he felt he would be needed most, so he attended field medical training to serve with the Marines.

Ruiz deployed to Iraq in 2006 with the Marine Corps 2nd Medical Battalion, 2nd Marine Logistics Group, II Marine Expeditionary Force out of Camp Lejeune, North Carolina. He returned home and visited his family that spring. A few months later, as Marines he served with prepared to head back to Iraq, Ruiz volunteered to go back too. This didn't surprise his parents.

"He was always making people laugh," said his mom, Lisa. "I think he wanted to be where the action was - out in the field, helping others."

Two weeks into that deployment on February 7, 2007, the CH-46 helicopter Ruiz was aboard was struck by an anti-aircraft missile. It crashed northwest of Baghdad, killing Ruiz, another corpsman and five Marines.

Ruiz was buried with military honors and interred February 22, 2007 at Arlington National Cemetery, Virginia.

Even after 10 years, for the Ruiz family, the pain of losing their son has never faded, but smiles at fond memories are ever present.

"He loved to help people," the elder Manuel Ruiz said of his son.

And that's what he did. ... It's tough. You have your son buried out there [in Arlington], then you see many others buried out there - there's so many." - Manuel Ruiz Sr.

Lisa recalled that when her son was buried [at Arlington] his was the last grave in the last row. A decade later, there are 15 more rows behind her son.

"We're proud of him and everything he did," said Lisa. "He saved a lot of lives while he was here."

Seaman James "Little Mac" McDaniels

The call to serve can be heard in many ways, whether it's to carry on a family tradition of service or a young man or woman is inspired by the sharp creases of a Sailor's dress white uniform. Sometimes, it's as simple as a local recruiter stopping by the high school to talk about the opportunities in the military, as was the case for Seaman James McDaniels.

McDaniels came home to tell his family he wanted to enlist in the Navy. Hesitant, his mother, Dianne, went with him to meet the recruiter. Soon McDaniels, "Little Mac" to his mother, was off to boot camp in 2000 and then to his first ship, USS Cole (DDG 67).

"It was really hard on us because we took him to the ship," recalled Dianne. "I watched it sail off and I watched a tear fall from his eye."

USS Cole departed Norfolk in early August 2000, but just two months later, the unthinkable would happen.

While anchored in the Port of Aden, Yemen, suicide bombers in an explosive-laden fiberglass boat pulled up to Cole's port side and detonated. The explosion breached a 40-by-60-foot hole in her hull, killing 17 Sailors, including McDaniels, and injuring 39 others.

"I went to work, I walked in and I looked at the television and it said, 'Breaking news: Attack on the USS Cole,'" Dianne remembered.

She spent the rest of the day in fear and disbelief until a car door slam would bring news that no parent wants to hear.

I went downstairs and saw two men getting out of a car in uniforms, and I knew from TV when they come to your house, it's not good news. They told me, 'Mrs. McDaniels, I have to tell you your son is dead.' That's how we found out, on October 12th in the evening."
- Dianne McDaniels

The Norwegian heavy-lift vessel Blue Marlin carried the Cole back to the States for repairs. She was offloaded in Pascagoula, Mississippi, December 13, 2000. She finally returned to the open sea August 20, 2003.

Almost 17 years later, Dianne shares the pain of losing her son along with 16 other Cole families who still stand united in their grief.

"I couldn't ask for a better son," Dianne said through tears. "I'm glad he did what he did as far as serving, because that's what he wanted to do. I wouldn't want anyone else to go through what I went through, and what the other family members went through, because we went through a lot."

Lt. (SEAL) Brendan Looney

Some of the most challenging professions in the Navy belong to the special warfare programs. Sailors who choose to become SEALs, special warfare combatant-craft crewmen (SWCC) or explosive ordnance disposal (EOD) specialists go through years of rigorous training and belong to highly specialized fighting forces.

Lt. (SEAL) Brendan Looney graduated from the Naval Academy in 2004, where he was an all-American for the Navy's lacrosse team. Looney was commissioned as a naval intelligence officer and headed overseas for his first assignment with Commander, Naval Forces Korea, Detachment Chinhae.

He yearned for something more, however. He wanted to be a Navy SEAL.

"When Brendan told me he wanted to be a SEAL, I was happy for him because I knew it was something he wanted to do, and I wanted to be supportive," said his wife, Amy. "But at the same time, I was scared."

March 2007 found Looney at Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL (BUD/S) training. Even the tragic death of his best friend, fellow academy classmate and roommate, Marine 1st Lt. Travis Manion, in Iraq that April didn't stop him. He pushed forward - for Travis.

After graduation, Looney was assigned to West Coast-based SEAL Team 3.

"He was excited as soon as he received his trident he was ready to go and deploy," recalled Amy. "I was ready for him to go because I felt the sooner he got over there, the sooner he was going to be able to get back to me."

Looney deployed to Afghanistan, March 9, 2010 - his wife's birthday. He and his brothers from Team 3 completed 59 missions in less than seven months. September 21, 2010, just 10 days prior to Looney's expected return to the United States, the helicopter he was aboard crashed in Zabul Province, Afghanistan, killing Looney and eight others.

We never wanted to say goodbye to each other - that seemed very permanent, very final. We would always say, 'see you later.'" - Amy Looney

Looney was laid to rest in Arlington National Cemetery, next to Travis. Travis' father read their epitaph: The two were reunited as "warriors for freedom, brothers forever."

Editor's note: This Memorial Day, take a moment to remember the sacrifices that all Gold Star family members make when a loved one dies in service to the nation. Read about the history of Memorial Day here:
Graphic link for History of Memorial Day.