What Is a Gold Star American Family?

02 August, 2016

Gold Star families have been in the news a lot in the United States over the past week. But not all Americans know the term, which is important to military families.

Gold Star families are immediate relatives of U.S. Armed Forces members who died in battle or in support of certain military activities. These relatives can be parents, sons, daughters, brothers, sisters or other loved ones.

The term Gold Star was first used in World War I, when families flew flags with stars representing each loved one fighting in the conflict.

Gold Star traditions

The flags had a blue star for each immediate family member serving in the U.S. military during any period of war or hostilities. If a loved one was killed while serving, the blue star was replaced by a gold star.

The gold stars were worn on clothing and added to flags to let communities know the sacrifices made by armed forces members and their families. The stars were used to represent the honor and glory of the soldiers killed.

The Department of Defense presents immediate family members of fallen service members a flag with a gold star or a lapel pin with a gold star.

Gold Star lapel button
Gold Star lapel button

The exact number of Gold Star families is not known. The National Gold Star Family Registry reports at least 472,045 fallen military members have been registered by relatives.

Military importance of families

The U.S. Army says honoring Gold Star families is a sign of their importance to the military. "The strength of our army is our soldiers," it said. "The strength of our soldiers is our families. The army recognizes that no one has given more for the nation than the families of the fallen."

Other groups followed the Gold Star program. In 1928, a group of military mothers organized American Gold Star Mothers. Since 1936, the United States has observed Gold Star Mother's Day on the final Sunday of September.

Gold Star Wives was formed during World War II by a group of founding members including Eleanor Roosevelt, the wife of President Franklin Roosevelt. It was created as a way for survivors to support each other and work together to improve the assistance they receive.

Gold Star families have been in the news since the parents of a U.S. soldier killed in battle spoke last week at the Democratic National Convention. The parents, Khizr and Ghazala Khan, are Muslim. They appeared together on the convention floor.

Gold Star controversy

The father shared how his son, Army Captain Humayun Khan, was killed by a suicide bomber in Iraq in 2004. Noting his son's sacrifice, Khan rejected Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump's proposal to restrict Muslim immigration. Khan also held up a copy of the U.S. Constitution and urged Trump to read it.

Khizr Khan, father of fallen US Army Capt. Humayun S. M. Khan and his wife Ghazala speak during the final day of the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, July 28, 2016.
Khizr Khan, father of fallen US Army Capt. Humayun S. M. Khan and his wife Ghazala speak during the final day of the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, July 28, 2016.

His comments led the candidate to criticize Khan in television broadcasts and on social media. "Mr. Khan, who does not know me, viciously attacked me from the stage of the DNC and is now all over TV doing the same -- Nice!" Trump tweeted on Monday.

In another tweet, he said: "This story is not about Mr. Khan, who is all over the place doing interviews, but rather RADICAL ISLAMIC TERRORISM and the U.S. Get smart!"

Trump's criticism was condemned by Senator John McCain, the Republican presidential candidate in 2008.

Trump's comments were also criticized by other members of Congress, family members of fallen military members and veterans groups.


President Barack Obama did not react directly to Trump's comments in a speech this week to the Disabled American Veterans of America. But he praised Gold Star families for making "a sacrifice that most of us cannot even begin to imagine."

"They represent the very best of our country. They continue to inspire us every day, every moment. They serve as a powerful reminder of the true strength of America. We have to do everything we can for those families - and honor them, and be humbled by them."

I'm Bryan Lynn.

Bryan Lynn wrote this story for VOA Learning English based on a report from VOAnews. Additional material came from the Associated Press and Reuters. George Grow was the editor.

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Words in This Story

glory n. something that brings praise or fame to someone

lapeln. a piece of fabric on the front of a jacket or coat

viciousadj. deliberately cruel or violent

disparagedadj. someone or something described as weak or unimportant

humble – adj. showing modesty, not proud