Feb. 11, 2017
Shawne K. Wickham | Union Leader
MANCHESTER - A Manchester family is leading an effort to honor New Hampshire's Gold Star families - those whose loved ones died in service to their country. For them, the mission is deeply personal.
Marine Cpl. Michael Ouellette was killed in action in Afghanistan on March 22, 2009.
Now his sister, Stephanie, mother Donna and brother Alan are raising funds to build a Gold Star Families Memorial Monument at the New Hampshire State Veterans Cemetery.
After Michael died, Stephanie said, "We made a really conscious decision to celebrate his life."
Her mother agreed: "We chose to make something good happen from the worst day of our lives."
That meant throwing themselves into charitable activities that benefit veterans and service members. "Doing good work in the name of your loved one is an awesome way to honor their memory," said Stephanie, a dispatcher for the Manchester Police Department.
For years, the family has volunteered for the Pennsylvania-based Travis Manion Foundation, which enlists veterans and Gold Star family members for service projects.
That's what Stephanie was doing about 18 months ago when a friend took her to see the Gold Star Family memorial in Valley Forge, Pa. She remembers the hair standing up on her arms at her first sight of the memorial, backlit and glowing in the dusk. "I've never seen anything like it," she said.
Wouldn't it would be nice to have something like that in New Hampshire? her friend suggested. "I guess I'm building a monument," she replied.
There is a Gold Star Mother statue in downtown Manchester, and an active Gold Star Mothers group here. "I think it's great that they honor the mothers, but they forgot everybody else," said Donna Ouellette.
"And it's too bad that it took so long" - she draped an arm over her daughter's shoulders - "for somebody to decide to do this."
Family members "come to their grief differently," Donna said.
As a mother, "I lost my baby, my child," she said, cradling her arms.
But for the father of an only son, she said, "There's no one to carry on the name; there's no one to go into the family business."
And siblings "lose a part of themselves," she said. "The lost one will never be the uncle to your children. There will never be any cousins for your children to grow up and play with."
Stephanie agreed other family members are often overlooked. "Our sacrifice is different, but it's not less, and it's not recognized," she said. "I always equate losing a sibling to losing a limb," she said. "You have to adjust your whole life. You lose part of your identity."
That's why, she said, "Honoring and recognizing the families as a whole is important, because we all lost somebody we love."
Alan Ouellette said he hopes the new family monument will provide visitors "context" for the nearby graves in the state veterans' cemetery. "I would like them to understand that soldiers are our brothers, our sisters, our best friends, our neighbors. That the work that they do, the training and actual operations, is very important. And whether they come home or not, we need to love them.
"I would like them to be grateful," he said.
Stephanie said the memorial will honor Gold Star families from all wars.
"This is a way to unite everybody and let them know their loss is not forgotten; their loved one is not forgotten."
"They live on in the good works we do in their memories. They live on in the stories you tell, in the drinks you raise in their honor."
Isn't it a bit shameful that a Gold Star family has to build the memorial itself? In some ways, that's true, they acknowledged. But it's also their way of sending a message to other Gold Star families out there, Stephanie said, "To those that came before me and those that will unfortunately come after me, we're honoring your loss and we support you through your loss."
The Hershel Woody Williams Medal of Honor Foundation of Kentucky has provided $5,000 in seed money to build the New Hampshire memorial. There are 17 such monuments completed in other states, and 39 more in progress.
The Ouellettes hope to raise about $85,000 to build the monument and provide for its perpetual care; they also want to give back to the foundation to help other states do the same.
The groundbreaking for the monument is Sunday, April 23, which is Gold Star Mothers Day in New Hampshire. The Ouellettes hope it will be finished by the last Sunday in September, National Gold Star Mothers Day.
Michael Horne, director of the state veterans' cemetery, said the memorial is a fitting addition to the place. He said it dovetails with a new Veterans Heritage Learning Center that will teach visitors about "the contributions and sacrifices that New Hampshire veterans and their families have made over the centuries."
Michael Ouellette's family said it's the little things they miss the most.
"We have family dinners and there's an empty seat," Stephanie said. "Holidays are not the same. ... On Thanksgiving, I used to have to fight for the turkey leg. Now it's just sitting there."
She thinks about how her brother, Alan, won't have Michael to stand up for him as best man, or spoil his kids. "Mike would have been an awesome uncle," she said. "I would have been the one that would babysit, and Mike would have been the cool uncle who gives them sugar and candy before they go to bed."
When he was 8 years old, Michael "trapped me in a sleeping bag and rode me down a flight of stairs like a toboggan," he recalled. When they were older, there were epic chess matches that lasted days and often ended in physical battles.
After Michael's death, Stephanie said, they had to make a choice: Let the grief engulf them or move forward and do as much good as they can in his memory.
It's not about moving on, but moving forward, her mother said. Alan likes to say, "It's not about the death; it's about the life. It's about sharing the stories, sharing the life," Alan said. "Taking some of that spark forward with you."
Donate online or send checks to: The Hershel "Woody" Williams Medal of Honor Foundation, 12123 Shelbyville Road, Suite 100, Louisville, KY, 40243. (Be sure to note that it is for the New Hampshire Memorial Project.)