Jill and I made it to Cloud Gate in Chicago at the end of our journey, otherwise known as “The Bean.”

In World War I, families who had one of their own serving in the military often hung a banner or flag outside with a blue star to symbolize their loved one. If that loved one were killed, the blue star would be turned to a gold one. I can imagine that in a war like that, there were a lot of blue stars outside of many family homes. I can imagine there were a lot of gold stars too.

This is where the the terms “Gold Star Family” or “Gold Star Wife” comes from. They are an essential piece to our military family — they have had their heart broken and shredded because their husband or son or sister was killed in some unknown, distant place very far away. Our Gold Star families are not unified in their political or religious beliefs, they come from a myriad of backgrounds, and they certainly do not grieve in the same ways… but they have all lost, and lost dearly.

I recently found myself driving across the country (again), this time with a Gold Star mother, Jill Stephenson. It was about a 17 hour drive from Tampa to Indiana, that we were able to conveniently break up into three days due to the veteran family helping us out. I flew back to Tampa out of Chicago a couple days after we arrived.

Jill’s son was Cpl. Ben Kopp, a Ranger assigned to C Co, 3rd Ranger Battalion out of Fort Benning, GA. He died on July 18, 2009, eight days after he was shot in combat in Afghanistan. I had not yet shipped to basic training when Ben was killed, so I never knew him. However, his name was on the lips and minds of many during my time as a Ranger; my first team leader was on the mission where he was shot. Ben was on his third deployment.

When you drive across the country with someone, the conversations twist and turn and seem to cover just about every topic under the sun. I know that Ben Kopp was a badass and a solid Ranger — many of my friends knew him personally. However, during this road trip I learned where that strength came from.

I appreciate her admiration for the simple, beautiful things: the vast stretches of giant wind turbines, the frozen banks of Lake Michigan, or the small tokens of gratitude you see to our nation’s military as you drive through central America. I appreciate her strength of character to show kindness when your first instinct is anger, or to be a positive influence in a world where everyone is insisting on pointing out everyone else’s missteps.

Ben was an organ donor, and though he died of wounds sustained in combat, he died after being transported back to the U.S. His donation went to 60 people in the country, including his heart that is currently beating in the chest of a woman from Illinois. He gave in life, and he even continued to give after death. By all accounts, Jill has that same spirit within her — she speaks around the country to inspire others, and she leads by example. She embodies a humble gravitas, and Americans ought to strive to act more like her.

I am not a Gold Star family member, but the Gold Star family is my family.

Editor’s note: Ben Kopp’s compelling story can be found in “The Heart of a Ranger,” by Bill Lunn.

All images provided by the author.

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