Parents of fallen heroes unite to cope with loss

They're called "Gold Star Parents" and, once a year, they come together to remember the military heroes who are their children and to share an intimate truth: life is lost, but love does not end

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The following script is from "Gold Star Parents" which aired on April 24, 2016. Scott Pelley is the correspondent. Nicole Young, producer.

In the wars since 9/11, thousands of Americans have lost sons or daughters. Bereaved parents often become isolated in a familiar world. Friends don't know what to say about a grief no words can touch. There is no term in the dictionary for a parent who has lost a child. So, these mothers and fathers call themselves Gold Star parents. It's in the tradition of the military service flag that hung in homes during the World Wars.

A tribute to a fallen hero 02:08

Each blue star on the banner stood for a loved one overseas. Gold honored those never coming home. Now some of these families are finding solace, once a year in San Francisco, in the embrace of the only people who can truly understand, other Gold Star parents traveling the same endless road.

In downtown San Francisco stands an unusual war memorial looking as it did in the 1920s when it was a hotel and theater. After World War II, Marines wanted a living memorial so they transformed this into a club that, today, honors all vets.

Mary Shea: I look at this building. It's like a ship that sails every February. That once we're inside here, we're safe. We can be ourselves. We don't have to explain to anybody. It's sort of a subliminal language that we all understand.

Mary Shea learned the language of loss when her son was killed. It's a language that cannot be translated and so she and her husband, Bill, felt they could no longer be understood.

Bill Shea: You're kind of cast adrift and you're sort of floating nowhere. And you don't know where to go or what to do and there they were. Understanding better than we understood the support that we needed.

The gathering the Sheas attend every year is organized by women who call themselves the "Blue Star Moms" of the East Bay area. Blue Stars, with sons and daughters who served overseas.

About 200 of California's Gold Stars attend this honor and remembrance event which begins with a reception. The next morning, each of the fallen receives a prayer.

Audience: "A grateful nation acknowledges your sacrifice and prays for your peace."

Later, Gold Star parents and counselors lead conversations for smaller groups like single parents and siblings. It's all invitation only, no press. The only pictures we have are from the Marines' Memorial Association.

Part of the hotel has become a memorial wall where every lost loved one since 9/11 is remembered -- 6,846 stories. Tim Shea was 22. He'd fought two tours in Afghanistan and was in Iraq on his third tour there, when his vehicle hit a bomb in August of 2005.

Bill Shea: A night, Thursday night about 9:30 there was a knock at the door. We were sort of getting ready to go to bed. And I was in the bedroom and then I heard Mary's voice. "Bill, come here, right now. Come here, come here. Come here." And I went out there and, and soon as we saw them, we knew what was, what we were facing.

Scott Pelley: Saw who?

Bill Shea: Saw the soldiers. The, the, there's a chaplain. There was, and, and, and two others. Was it two other soldiers who were there to tell us?

Tim grew up in Northern California. Dad a lawyer, mom a teacher.

Scott Pelley: How often do you come?

Bill Shea: Well, I come most every day and just have a little chat with Tim...

Ten years ago, at Tim's funeral, Mary noticed women she'd never seen before.

Mary Shea: Where did these people come from, and why are they here? Why do they care?

The strangers were Blue Star moms including Nancy Totman.

Scott Pelley: How many of these funerals have you been to?

Nancy Totman: Forty-two funerals. And each one is difficult. It just rips your heart out to know that another family, their life, their normal, is never the same.

Deb Saunders: I can think of a couple parents right off hand...

Deb Saunders understood their isolation.

Deb Saunders: You can express your sympathy but you cannot empathize with someone unless you're walking in their shoes and that's what I knew we had to do, was somehow gather these folks together, that they were better equipped in their journey to help one another.

To gather the Gold Stars, Deb Saunders reached out to a tough old leatherneck, retired Marine Major General Mike Myatt, the president and CEO of the Marines' Memorial Association.

A message to Gold Star parents 01:44

Mike Myatt: Deb Saunders, she was a Blue Star mom. She came to me one day and she said, "I'm worried about the Gold Star Moms. We need to provide some kinda comfort for 'em."

Deb Saunders: I knew General Myatt had the resources to help us do it but I also knew he had the heart. And that's exactly what this took.

Heart led Myatt to order the wall where you find senior airman Jonathan Vega Yelner. He had volunteered after his single mom discovered that he was ditching class in college.

Yolanda Vega: And I said "Jonathan, I'm going to give you two options, 'cause you fooled mommy. You have a choice. Navy or Air Force? Pick one."

Yolanda Vega thought those were the safer options.

Yolanda Vega: He came over and he hugged me and walked away and as he's walking straight toward the recruiter, he just went like this.

He never looked back. The Air Force gave him maturity and purpose. He served in Iraq then Afghanistan. And there, safe on base, he volunteered for an Army patrol. There was a bomb. He was 24.

Yolanda Vega: I was told that he was killed instantly. Thank you, God. And, yeah, my baby.

Yolanda barricaded herself behind close friends and family. Blue Star moms sought her out and she was amazed.

Going to the funerals of strangers 01:15

Yolanda Vega: Being a Blue Star Mother, coming over to a Gold Star Mother and hugging-- we're their worst nightmare. And yet, they are so willing to be part of our lives and ensuring our well-being. I couldn't have done it without them.

Scott Pelley: Your eyes light up when you talk about them and I'm trying to understand what it was that you found so uplifting, redeeming about that experience.

Yolanda Vega: I knew that my son would always be remembered. And that's one of the biggest fears Gold Star families have, that our children will be forgotten. That's not going to happen.

"The children," as parents will always call them, are celebrated at tribute tables. Their child lives again in every new introduction.

[Bill Shea: 'Cause when Tim was a senior...]

We asked a few families to assemble, for us, their tabletop biographies.

Scott Pelley: This is a picture of when she was little?

Claire Good: Yeah.

Meet Alecia Good. Daughter of Claire and Paul. A senior airman armed with what had to be the biggest smile in the Air Force.

Scott Pelley: As you're with more than 100 other tables at the event, people come by. What does it do for you?

Paul Good: It gives us a sense of that she didn't lose her life for nothing.

In 2006, Alecia Good was on counterterrorism duty near the horn of Africa when her helicopter collided with another. She was 23. Her daughter Tabatha was two.

Claire Good: Tabatha just recently went through her mom's wardrobe and the first thing she did was put on her uniform and she looked just like her mom. It was cute.

Paul Good: She realizes that her mom's special and that she won't be forgotten and she tells people, "My mommy's a fallen hero."

Mike Anderson: Not a day goes by that I don't think about my son. He was Mike, Jr., he was my only son, he was my firstborn.

Mike Anderson with his son, Mike, Jr.

Mike Anderson, Sr., has been coming to the event all 11 years.

Scott Pelley: When you see that new family come through the door at the next meeting, what do you tell 'em?

Mike Anderson: We tell 'em that we love 'em, we welcome 'em, again, "We're walkin' the same dark valley. I know how you feel. It does get a little better over time." People talk about closure. There's never real closure, at least not in my mind. But there are steps forward to ease the pain, to help with that closure.

"Not a day goes by that I don't think about my son. He was Mike, Jr., he was my only son, he was my firstborn."

Scott Pelley: What are those? The steps to ease the pain?

Mike Anderson: Faith, for me, going abroad, 2006, going to Iraq myself to see some of the same faces, be in the region, breathe some of the same air that my son unselfishly fought and died for.

Scott Pelley: You went to Iraq?

Mike Anderson: Yes, sir.

Scott Pelley: As a civilian?

Mike Anderson: It was a need for me, it was more than just a want.

Mike Anderson, Jr., joined the Marines the minute he got out of high school. In 2004, 11 days before Christmas, he was shot retaking the city of Fallujah.

Scott Pelley: The burden that you have is unbearable.

Mike Anderson: At times, yes, sir.

Scott Pelley: But when you come to this event you take on the unbearable burdens of another 100 families.

Mike Anderson: My son went abroad to help people that he'd never met, that he would probably never ever see again. It's just that, in some ways, its human nature to want to help others.

Mike Myatt: People asked me, "What do you say to the Gold Star Parents?" I say, "Well, you don't have to say anything to 'em, just ask 'em, 'Tell me about your son or your daughter'." Man, they'll just talk. They'll just tell you all they can about the son or daughter. And it's really something. I wished I'd have known this as a young officer 'cause I went to Vietnam and I had people killed out of my platoon. And I was going to go visit each family and the very last one was in Kansas. I was visiting them and I went to the house, and the father said, "Come on in." And the mother, she had on her apron. She said, "I just fixed dinner, would you have dinner with us?" I said, "No, I'm in a hurry, but I want to tell you about your son." And I told 'em how he was killed and everything. They really appreciated. Then, "Won't you stay for dinner?" "Oh, I better not." I realize now they wanted to tell me about their son. And I wasn't mature enough to know it.

Scott Pelley: That's why they wanted you to stay.

Mike Myatt: Yeah, yeah, and now I know it....

For Gen. Myatt, there is redemption now, in making a home for the memories.

Bill Shea: I remember one time visiting my son's graveside and thinking about how every day they would face the day and realize that this is dangerous and they did it anyway. I have a duty to do and this duty is dangerous and I'm going to do it.

Scott Pelley: Tim's death transferred that duty to you.

Mary Shea: Right.

Scott Pelley: The duty to live your lives and to help other people in the same situation that you're in.

Bill Shea: I think that's right. I think that's right. And, that's the best way to honor him.

Once a year Gold Star families are safe in the embrace of their peers, strangers who share an intimate truth: a life is lost, but love does not end.

  • Scott Pelley
    Scott Pelley

    Correspondent, "60 Minutes"