WRIGHT-PATTERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Ohio –
“I’ve always been honored in being part of the Air Force family, even though I didn’t serve myself,” Joseph Bryan Stuart said, shortly after receiving the first Gold Star Family Member identification card issued at Wright-Patterson as part of a new Air Force initiative, Aug. 25.
Stuart was only 8 years old when his father’s B-52 was shot down over Hanoi, North Vietnam by a surface-to-air missile during a bombing raid in December 1972, according to the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency.
“Christmas has never been the same since that time,” Stuart said.
Stuart remembers a lot about his father, Lt. Col. John Franklin Stuart. He remembers how his father used to love to take him camping, taught him how to fly remote-controlled airplanes and enjoyed watching the cartoon “Peanuts” with him.
“Snoopy was his favorite,” Joseph said.
His father’s remains have yet to be found and the Secretary of the Air Force changed his status from “Missing in Action” to “Died while Missing” on Aug. 8, 1978, according to The Virtual Wall.
Nearly 40 years later, Lt. Col. John Franklin Stuart’s son stood with an ID card in hand that would allow him the same access onto an Air Force base as his father, something Joseph hasn’t known since moving from base-to-base as a child.
“I think he’d be honored because my dad was a true military man and dedicated to God and country,” Joseph said. “He believed in what he was doing and he loved what he was doing. I think it [connects us] in a way. With this access ID card, I feel honored about it.”
Joseph was recently invited by some Airmen who knew his father to an upcoming reunion, to be held on Wright-Patterson, of those who served at the U-Tapao Air Base in Thailand during the Vietnam War. Now, Joseph will have unescorted access to participate.
“I believe it is important to let the survivors of our fallen heroes know they are and will always be a part of our Air Force family,” said Gary Sapp, Wright-Patterson’s Airman and Family Readiness Center Community Readiness consultant.
It’s a belief that Sapp has had for some time.
“I served 26 years on active duty [in the Air Force], and my last nine years I served as a First Sergeant, so I have always been about caring for people - our Airmen and their families,” Sapp said. “I feel privileged to be a small part of what the Air Force is doing to honor our fallen heroes and their families. The Gold Star Family Member ID card program is just another new and awesome avenue our leadership recognized as a method to show our gratitude for the ultimate sacrifice made.”
The Gold Star Family Member ID grants access to an Air Force base of the survivor’s choosing, allowing access to buried loved ones, attend base ceremonies and receive counseling, seminars or other assistance provided by the base’s A&FRC, according to Sapp.
“What we’re trying to do is give access to Gold Star families to the installation and to the services that we provide,” said Capt. Jordan Hayes, 88th Force Support Squadron deputy commander. “One of the things that we do at the Airmen Family Readiness Center is a program called Air Force Families Forever. After a military member passes, we continue to maintain contact with that family forever. They have a continuous link back to the Department of Defense, back to the Department of the Air Force, and we do that here.”
Hayes says that family wishes are respected. While some survivors may want frequent, regular contact, others may prefer less or even none. The AFRC staff recognizes that people grieve differently and works to provide custom support to meet whatever a survivor’s needs may be.
Wright-Patterson is one of five Air Force installations currently testing the new program to define and refine the card issuing process and determine the program’s impact on survivors, according to Sapp. Six states fall under Wright-Patterson’s coverage: Ohio, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Kentucky, Indiana and Michigan. Hayes says Sapp has helped people in all of them.
“People reach out to him all the time for, ‘Hey, we’ve got a memorial that’s being unveiled up in Michigan, can we get some Air Force support for that?” or, ‘I’ve got a question because I have a benefit that I don’t quite understand or I have a need that’s not being met,’ or sometimes they just need somebody to talk to,” Hayes said.
Generally, anyone eligible to wear the Gold Star Lapel Pin in accordance with Department of Defense Instruction 1348.36 is also eligible for the Gold Star Family Member ID. Cards are good for one year with indefinite renewals and access to additional Air Force installations is possible by visiting that base’s Visitor Center. Cards do not allow access to the base exchange, commissary or MWR facilities and do not allow installation access if the base is in a force protection condition higher than FPCON Bravo. Card holders are not allowed to escort or sponsor other individuals.
While the program has initially reached out to survivors who lost their loved ones in 2011 and earlier, any eligible Gold Star Family Member is encouraged to contact the Air Force Personnel Center or their nearest Air Force base’s AFRC to participate in the program. For those residing in Wright-Patterson’s coverage area, they can contact Garry Sapp at email@example.com.
“We’re here. We’re a family. We don’t give up,” Hayes said. “Just because a member is no longer with us doesn’t mean we’re no longer with the family.”