Gold Star Mothers Day: cherishing memories

SCHRIEVER AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. --
July 18, 2009, Patricia O’Kane-Trombley was standing in her kitchen when there was a knock at the door. As she walked the six paces to the front door, she noticed two men in Air Force uniforms; one of them was wearing a cross, indicating he was a chaplain.

“Oh no, not this,” she thought as her stomach sank.

Her son, Capt. Thomas Gramith, an F-15E Strike Eagle pilot stationed at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base, North Carolina, was currently serving in Afghanistan.

As she opened the door, her worst fears came true as one of the men started to read her a death notification. Thomas had passed away while serving his country. The notification affected her and her husband, Bob, as many might expect: devastation, grief and pain.

While going through the grieving process, O’Kane-Trombley heard of Gold Star Mothers, a service organization for grieving mothers of fallen service members. The group, which honors Sept. 24 as National Gold Star Mother’s Day, dates back to 1928, when families of fallen veterans would hang a gold star in their windows, symbolizing the sacrifice made by a loved one.

“Our mission is to be there for each other and educate the public about what gold star mothers really are,” said Misi Moser, Pikes Peak Gold Star Mothers president. “We also want to help other veterans whenever we can.”

O’Kane Trombley found the program critical to coping and moving forward with her life.

“Without the Gold Star Mother’s program, I wouldn’t have been able to turn my life around,” O’Kane-Trombley said. “It’s phenomenal to have this kind of support structure. It’s the best thing that’s happened to me. Everybody there knows what it’s like to have a child pass away.”

The Pikes Peak Gold Star Mothers chapter meets on a monthly basis. The group of 60 strong rally together to celebrate the lives of their children.

“You know how moms are, we love talking about our kids,” O’Kane-Trombley said. “That’s what this is all about: supporting each other and cherishing the memories.”

At her first Gold Star Mother’s meeting in 2009, the grieving mother was shocked to hear laughter echoing throughout the building.

“I thought, ‘what are they all so happy about,’” she said. “It was then I came to realize while the pain never fully goes away, it becomes different. You learn to focus on what was great about your child. In Tom’s case, I’m celebrating who he was and what he still means to me.”

For O’Kane-Trombley, her son’s personal legacy is similar to Gold Star Mothers’: giving back and supporting friends and family.

For Gramith, that legacy started early.

At age 12, near Christmas time, his little sister, Liesl, had to miss a Christmas concert she was looking forward to due to an illness. Seeing her despair, he took matters into his own hands. While his parents were away, he cut off the top of a small Colorado Spruce Tree from the yard and brought Christmas to his sister’s room in the form of a fully decorated Christmas tree.

“At first, I wondered where he got the money to get his sister a tree and how he got it here for that matter,” O’Kane-Trombley said with a wry smile. “Then, it hit me that he must have cut down one of the spruce trees I had planted. I told him, ‘Thomas, you probably killed the tree’ and he replied, ‘mom, she was so sad. I had to do something about it.’ That’s the kind of person he was. He loved seeing people happy.”

Years later, they found out, much like Gramith’s legacy, the tall spruce was still standing.

Through her personal religious faith and participation in the Gold Star Mothers organization, O’Kane-Trombley, reignited a passion she and her son Tom both shared: singing.

“Tom had a beautiful tenor voice,” She said. “I’ve sang in several choirs, but for about two years after he died, I didn’t have the voice I used to or the passion for it.”

During a church service, a friend suggested to her she join the choir and try again. O’Kane-Trombley thought of Tom and decided to try.

“My voice is better now than it has ever been,” she said. “I like to think that it’s because my hero, my son, is up there cheering me on. He’s singing with me, saying ‘Go mom.’”

The Gold Star Mothers use a term called “God winks” to describe things they believe are their sons, daughters or divine presence reaching back to them.

“Tom loved trains,” O’Kane-Trombley said. “Every once in a while, I’ll look up to the sky and say, ‘I could really use hearing from you right now.’ I swear, it’s uncanny, I’ll sometimes hear a train whistle and it will make me smile.”

Gramith was laid to rest in Arlington National Cemetery in downpour heavy rain.

“I think there is something beautiful and poetic about that,” O’Kane-Trombley said. “It can only get better after the storm, and that’s what has happened with my memories of Tom.”

For Gold Star Mothers, their sons and daughters may have passed away as grown adults, but to them, they will always be mommy’s little boy or girl. Tom and his mother’s last words over the phone galvanized that sentiment.

“When he was young, we would say ‘I love you’ to each other and add extra ‘M’s to the end of each other’s names,” O’Kane-Trombley said. “The last thing I said to him was ‘I love you, Tommmmm’ and the last thing I heard him say was, ‘I love you, Mommmmm.’”

Moser said she wishes more mothers would come forward and take advantage of the support like O’Kane-Trombley has done.

“I think many people prefer to grieve privately, but I don’t think many people realize how helpful it is to have an organization like this to lean on,” Moser said.

For more information on the Gold Star Mothers organization, contact Moser at 303-570-7959.