Gold Star Families: A National Treasure in Troubled Times

CommentaryAs a U.S. Army Green Beret, I learned a lot of lessons in combat. One of the biggest lessons I’ve learned is how amazing our Gold Star families are. During the chaotic U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan in the summer of 2021, I organized and helped lead a group of volunteers known as Task Force Pineapple. From our various locales in the United States, we coordinated safe passage for our Afghan partners trying to escape the wrath of the Taliban. During that time, I witnessed the courage and love that is representative of our Gold Star families in one Gold Star wife. On Aug. 15, 2021, Jane Horton’s mind blurred with exhaustion as she watched cable news reports about Kabul’s collapse from her sofa. She had never been so tired. She felt as though every ounce of energy had been wrung from her body. Still, she had to keep going. She had to keep her voice in the news cycle and keep “the story” grounded in truth; she had to give a voice to her Afghan friends who had none. In rapid fire, Horton would have a Zoom interview with a reporter who wanted to know how Gold Star families felt about Kabul’s fall. Then another. Horton couldn’t believe the chaos unfolding in the country she loved. Taliban forces were reported on the outskirts of the capital; others were spotted on the streets of Kabul. There was chaos at the airport. And shuttered shops and empty sidewalks as residents of Kabul hid in their homes. Then another live Zoom interview for cable news would begin, and she would pull herself together all over again. The news anchors on the other end of the Zoom interviews bristled with indignation over what was happening in Afghanistan, and concern over the war crashing to its conclusion in a cascade of blunders, failed policies, and missed signals. They all wanted to talk to the Gold Star widow about her husband, Chris Horton, who had been killed almost a decade before. Chris had been a National Guard sniper in the 1-279 Infantry, 45th Infantry Brigade, and he was killed during a firefight in Paktia Province. He was 26 then, a handsome young man from Collinsville, Oklahoma, with dark, bushy eyebrows and a wide smile. When he was killed, Horton became a widow at 24. Now 35, her phone rang constantly and pinged over and over with messages as other Gold Star widows tried to reach her to make sense of the catastrophe unfolding in Afghanistan. The reporters’ questions were infuriating, some insinuating that her husband died for nothing. They wanted her to blame someone. “Was it all in vain?” one TV news reporter asked Horton in a live segment. “What would Chris have said about the chaotic withdrawal?” “You know, ma’am, that is so incredibly painful. I don’t know what he’d say. He and I shouldn’t have to answer that. I bring that back to the American people,” Horton responded. Horton exerted a graceful gravity that pulled people to her for comment, for wisdom, for comfort. She had become an advocate and spokesperson for Gold Star widows by presenting her husband’s sacrifice as symbolic of all the losses of the war. Finding Meaning Horton had loved government and politics as a college student and had been working as an intern for a senator from Oklahoma when Chris was killed. His death plunged Horton into a darkness she had never known. She shared wrenching posts on Facebook about her grief. At first, she thought that she had lost her future. To her surprise, she gained a different one. Healing the hole in her heart required answers. Why had Chris died? And for what? Horton needed to go to Afghanistan to understand—something few Gold Star family members outside of the uniformed military had done. She made five trips there with the secretary of defense, the USO, the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, and Afghanistan’s man in Washington, Ambassador Hamdullah Mohib. What she found there was not what she had expected—a place rich in history and culture, with people who had been oppressed for most of their lives. Rather than hate the country where her husband had died, she fell in love with the land and its people. After President Ashraf Ghani saw her give a speech in 2020, he asked President Donald Trump if she could help design programs for the families of their fallen. Horton had worked on some orphan programs before, but this would be broader, encompassing all of the Afghan widows and orphans of more than 20,000 Afghan security force members who were killed every year. The threat to her husband’s legacy—and all the other U.S. service members killed in the war—forced her to stay strong. Despite the emotional trauma she was weathering, Horton mustered the inner will to remain in the public arena to tell the story of the Afghan collapse, to appeal to the hearts of the American people. She delivered a consistent message: Americans needed to come together and support survivors of the fallen, combat vets, and Afghan refugees in the United States. But some didn’t get it. The division among politicians was

Gold Star Families: A National Treasure in Troubled Times

Commentary

As a U.S. Army Green Beret, I learned a lot of lessons in combat. One of the biggest lessons I’ve learned is how amazing our Gold Star families are.

During the chaotic U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan in the summer of 2021, I organized and helped lead a group of volunteers known as Task Force Pineapple. From our various locales in the United States, we coordinated safe passage for our Afghan partners trying to escape the wrath of the Taliban. During that time, I witnessed the courage and love that is representative of our Gold Star families in one Gold Star wife.

On Aug. 15, 2021, Jane Horton’s mind blurred with exhaustion as she watched cable news reports about Kabul’s collapse from her sofa. She had never been so tired. She felt as though every ounce of energy had been wrung from her body. Still, she had to keep going. She had to keep her voice in the news cycle and keep “the story” grounded in truth; she had to give a voice to her Afghan friends who had none. In rapid fire, Horton would have a Zoom interview with a reporter who wanted to know how Gold Star families felt about Kabul’s fall. Then another.

Horton couldn’t believe the chaos unfolding in the country she loved. Taliban forces were reported on the outskirts of the capital; others were spotted on the streets of Kabul. There was chaos at the airport. And shuttered shops and empty sidewalks as residents of Kabul hid in their homes. Then another live Zoom interview for cable news would begin, and she would pull herself together all over again.

The news anchors on the other end of the Zoom interviews bristled with indignation over what was happening in Afghanistan, and concern over the war crashing to its conclusion in a cascade of blunders, failed policies, and missed signals.

They all wanted to talk to the Gold Star widow about her husband, Chris Horton, who had been killed almost a decade before. Chris had been a National Guard sniper in the 1-279 Infantry, 45th Infantry Brigade, and he was killed during a firefight in Paktia Province. He was 26 then, a handsome young man from Collinsville, Oklahoma, with dark, bushy eyebrows and a wide smile.

When he was killed, Horton became a widow at 24. Now 35, her phone rang constantly and pinged over and over with messages as other Gold Star widows tried to reach her to make sense of the catastrophe unfolding in Afghanistan. The reporters’ questions were infuriating, some insinuating that her husband died for nothing. They wanted her to blame someone.

“Was it all in vain?” one TV news reporter asked Horton in a live segment. “What would Chris have said about the chaotic withdrawal?”

“You know, ma’am, that is so incredibly painful. I don’t know what he’d say. He and I shouldn’t have to answer that. I bring that back to the American people,” Horton responded.

Horton exerted a graceful gravity that pulled people to her for comment, for wisdom, for comfort. She had become an advocate and spokesperson for Gold Star widows by presenting her husband’s sacrifice as symbolic of all the losses of the war.

Finding Meaning

Horton had loved government and politics as a college student and had been working as an intern for a senator from Oklahoma when Chris was killed. His death plunged Horton into a darkness she had never known. She shared wrenching posts on Facebook about her grief. At first, she thought that she had lost her future. To her surprise, she gained a different one.

Healing the hole in her heart required answers. Why had Chris died? And for what? Horton needed to go to Afghanistan to understand—something few Gold Star family members outside of the uniformed military had done. She made five trips there with the secretary of defense, the USO, the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, and Afghanistan’s man in Washington, Ambassador Hamdullah Mohib.

What she found there was not what she had expected—a place rich in history and culture, with people who had been oppressed for most of their lives. Rather than hate the country where her husband had died, she fell in love with the land and its people.

After President Ashraf Ghani saw her give a speech in 2020, he asked President Donald Trump if she could help design programs for the families of their fallen. Horton had worked on some orphan programs before, but this would be broader, encompassing all of the Afghan widows and orphans of more than 20,000 Afghan security force members who were killed every year.

The threat to her husband’s legacy—and all the other U.S. service members killed in the war—forced her to stay strong. Despite the emotional trauma she was weathering, Horton mustered the inner will to remain in the public arena to tell the story of the Afghan collapse, to appeal to the hearts of the American people.

She delivered a consistent message: Americans needed to come together and support survivors of the fallen, combat vets, and Afghan refugees in the United States. But some didn’t get it. The division among politicians was already driving the politics of the disaster and she felt it was the wrong time for recrimination.

“You need to smash Biden,” one senior congressional leader told Horton in a call after watching one of her cable news appearances.

“Listen, I lost my heart. I lost my husband, you know?” Horton replied.

“But the administration did this!” he shouted into the phone.

“Think about what you are doing with all this division. Gold Star families are hurting. We have people over there. American citizens are on the ground. I’m not going to sit here and rip my country apart,” she said, abruptly cutting off the call.

Now is not the time for blame, she thought. Now is the time to come together and address the crisis. What irked her most was the legacy of those who made the ultimate sacrifice being canceled just like that.

“They don’t deserve to be tied to this crap when they were there to serve their country and give their lives if asked,” she vented to a friend.

Horton wasn’t the only one. So many of the Gold Star families who had lost loved ones in Afghanistan were having their wounds torn open again, asking themselves “why?” The young wife of another soldier killed in combat messaged Horton. “I’m trying to understand 20 years of war and countless lives lost and we are just throwing it away to go right back to square one. Those sacrifices were for nothing now. The progress is gone. My heart hurts,” she wrote.

In some ways, Afghanistan’s collapse was worse than losing Chris. When he was killed, she felt the immediate sharp loss, but then she had found her calling as an advocate for Gold Star families and the people of Afghanistan. As the years passed, she worked to humanize Afghanistan and demonstrate the beauty of its culture to Americans and other Gold Star families. It made her stronger. More powerful. More resolute. She thought she could never be broken again. She was wrong.

Yet, as Afghanistan collapsed, and our Task Force Pineapple worked feverishly to help our Afghan partners find safe passage out of the spiraling cauldron that was once a democracy, I witnessed a poised Jane Horton set aside her grief and leverage her vast network of contacts inside and outside of Afghanistan to help a 24-year-old single Afghan woman escape to freedom as Taliban fighters descended on her.

During the crisis, Horton and I talked on the phone several times. During one of our talks, she shared an experience from better days during one of her trips to Afghanistan a few years earlier, when she had the chance to address Ghani and his top advisers. “The very blood of my family, my love and my life are in this ground beneath us,” she said. The room was still and warm as Afghans and coalition leaders looked at her, some with smiles, some with tears. “Thank you for bringing me back to my heart. It will always be here in Afghanistan, and I know you will take perfect care of it—because it is your heart too. Our hearts are one.”

What if we all led like Horton in our daily lives? What if we stood against the division in this country and focused on the greater good instead of our personal agenda? Horton embodies the deep character and compassion endemic to so many of our Gold Star families. This Memorial Day I hope we’ll all pause amid the barbeques and lake outings to reflect on not just the amazing sacrifice made by our fallen warriors, but on the tremendous resilience and leadership gifted to us every day by those who were left behind. They are truly a national treasure in troubled times.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.


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Scott Mann is a former Green Beret who specialized in unconventional, high-impact missions and relationship building. He is the founder of Rooftop Leadership and appears frequently on TV and many syndicated radio programs. For more information, visit RooftopLeadership.com