When most people visit a national war memorial, it can be hard for them to think about the specifics of the lives lost beyond the statues or names listed on a wall. The question becomes, who were these brave men and women who sacrificed their lives for their country? Now the nonprofit organization Military Families United has created a new online database that captures cherished memories of fallen soldiers in the form of photos, videos and tributes. The hope is that memories of those who perished in combat will live on in perpetuity.
Among those leading that effort is John Ellsworth, a Police Chief for a Detroit, Michigan, suburb outside.
Ellsworth lost his son, Marine Lance Corporal Justin Ellsworth, in Fallujah, Iraq, in 2004. Ellsworth will tell you that Justin not only loved serving his country, but he enjoyed bull riding, snow mobiles and horseback riding.
“He was a true cowboy,” recalled John.
After Justin’s death, John and other Gold Star parents created MFU, a group composed of Gold Star and Blue Star families and Americans who support the troops and their families.
“We talked about how there are many different places to memorialize your loved one,” he said. “But we realized there was no good searchable database of the fallen.
“What a neat way to honor our loved ones by being able to have a memorial to them that outlasts us, and to tell their story to many more people.”
In 2011, MFU launched the National Gold Star Family Registry. It is the first comprehensive database of the United States’ fallen heroes and their families ever developed. The database includes those lost in World War II.
“There are so many [troops] like Justin from World War II [and] nobody knows their names,” John said. “We are making sure that nobody is going to forget their names [or] their stories.”
That’s just what Robert Jackson, executive director of MFU has been tasked to do -- steer the next phase of the Registry into a comprehensive 21st century online database of U.S. service men and women who lost their lives in combat by connecting their tribute pages to social media like Twitter and Facebook.
“The homepage will showcase a revolving photo wall of heroes that will change every seven seconds, and each hero will have a personal tribute page for family members, friends and even the general public to comment on, post video and share stories,” Jackson said.
The Registry will soon introduce Gold Star Connect – a special place where family members of the fallen can connect with each other and share stories of their lost loved ones.
“I think the opportunity to connect with other Gold Star families is invaluable. You can’t understand it unless you’ve been through it,” said Gold Star mom Jody Nelson Davids, who lost her son, Marine Lance Corporal Wesley Davids, in Iraq in May 2005. “I am honored that we have a place where we can go tell Wesley’s story, and not just me, so all the family can participate.”
The most important thing you can provide a Gold Star Family with is the ability to reach out to those with the same experiences, and that’s what we decided we would do with the Registry, and help each other through their grief,” Jackson said.
Jackson and Ellsworth are also hopeful that teachers will see the Registry as an educational tool to use as students learn military history.
“I am really pushing to get this in a form for teachers to use as a learning tool to learn about our military history,” Ellsworth said.
With the next transformation coming to The National Gold Star Family Registry in July 2012, it is already clear that the memorial has become a place for a hero’s story to come alive, even after his or her untimely death. Military Families United wants to encourage all American’s to visit this memorial just as they would visit the memorials in Washington, D.C.
“I believe that if you forget about those who have given their lives, it’s easier for those who make these decisions to go to war the next time,” Jackson said.
Ashley Bernardi is a Virginia-based freelance writer.