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Honoring service members lost in combat by cheering on their families

November 11, 2015 at 6:20 PM EDT
As Americans recognize veterans' service to our country, some are also paying tribute to those who have lost a family member in war. Special correspondent Dennis Kellogg from our PBS station in Nebraska reports on one organization's efforts to support "Gold Star" families.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: On the day when we recognize the service to our country by veterans, a story about those who have lost a family member due to the casualties of war.

At the Nebraska-Michigan State football game this past weekend, a special tribute was paid to the family members of the more than 60 Nebraskans who gave their lives in the global war on terror.

From our PBS station in Nebraska, Dennis Kellogg reports on one organization’s efforts to support Gold Star Families who are still coping with their loss.

DENNIS KELLOGG:
Nebraska’s Memorial Stadium is packed with 90,000 fans to watch this college football game. In this sea of red, 55 women and children stand out, and not just because of what they’re wearing. They’re Gold Star Families.

RHONDA ROBINSON, Widow of Fallen Soldier: It’s a unique group. Like, I have been told it’s not a group that you want to be a part of, but you are a part of because things happen.

DENNIS KELLOGG: Four years ago, Rhonda Robinson learned her husband, Josh, had been shot and killed while on patrol in Southern Afghanistan.

RHONDA ROBINSON: I think of it every day, and I think the boys, too.

DENNIS KELLOGG: Those boys, 9-year-old Kody and 8-year-old Wyatt, work hard to hold onto the memories they have of their dad.

WYATT ROBINSON, Son of Fallen Soldier: Everybody says I look like him. I do stuff dirty — I, like, get dirty a lot. And I’m just really rough.

KODY ROBINSON, Son of Fallen Soldier: When I was younger I always wished, maybe someday he will come back. Maybe someday he will come back. But, like, as I got older, it started to get to me. And I started to realize he’s not coming back, and it’s going to be a long time until we see each other again.

DENNIS KELLOGG: The football game was the culmination of the first-of-its-kind Gold Star Honor Flight Weekend, honoring families who lost someone serving their country since 9/11.

First, the families were given the royal treatment, massages, manicures, and pedicures for the moms, handmade quilts with special messages for the kids.

Organizers Bill and Evonne Williams don’t want anyone to forget the sacrifice of these soldiers and these families.

Why is it so important for you to do this?

BILL WILLIAMS, Organizer: Because every fallen family’s feeling is the same, is that they’re loved ones are going to be forgotten. So that’s our mission, is that they not be.

EVONNE WILLIAMS, Organizer: We see the veterans that come back that are wounded, but we don’t really see the widows and the children. And I think it gives people a chance to say, we’re here for you. Thank you.

DENNIS KELLOGG: As these families arrive at the Omaha Airport for their Honor Flight, hundreds of people line the terminal to show their support.

WOMAN: I thought it would be kind of fun. And we have gotten a couple of hugs already.

(LAUGHTER)

BOY: This is my first time riding on a plane.

DENNIS KELLOGG: Less than a half-hour after take-off, they land in Lincoln, where the airport is packed with even more people to greet them, including Iraq veteran Robert Kugler. He served with his brother, who was killed in the war.

ROBERT KUGLER, Veteran: I think it’s really important for them to know that there are people that are still hurting on — with our own pain, but we’re still here to support them, because we’re all in this together.

DENNIS KELLOGG:
One of the most difficult and memorable parts of the day comes when the families place a rose next to photos of their loved ones. The Williams are creating similar displays remembering the fallen from each state.

Wyatt Robinson reads the note his mom wrote that’s posted next to his dad’s photo.

WYATT ROBINSON: “Josh, so proud of you and thank you for all your memories. Kody and Wyatt and me will keep your story alive. Your wife, Rhonda.”

DENNIS KELLOGG: It’s just a short walk from the quiet of the photo display to the noisy football stadium. But it’s long enough for these fans to let these families know that, on this day, they’re cheering for more than the home team.

Once inside, the families receive special recognition and a standing ovation. They wait for the final notes of the national anthem. That’s when they release gold balloons, each carrying a very personal message they have written to their soldier, their husband, their dad.

WYATT ROBINSON: I wrote, “Dear father, I miss you so much.”

KODY ROBINSON: “Miss you. Love you. Want you. Your son, always, Kody. XO, XO.”

WOMAN: “Your memory will always live strong through your little girl. Always and forever, love, Mama Bear.”

CHILD: Hey dad, I love you and I hope to see you.

CHILD: “I love you dad, and I know you love me too.”

DENNIS KELLOGG: Powerful messages from the family of those who made the ultimate sacrifice.

For the PBS NewsHour, I’m Dennis Kellogg in Lincoln, Nebraska.

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