Blue, silver, gold stars honor military families

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Karen Castillo
  • 81st Trainign Wing voting office
When I was deployed last year, I learned about a military tradition I had never heard of which pays tribute to military family members whose loved ones are active duty or were wounded or killed in action.

If the military member is active duty, then the family is considered "blue star." If the military member was wounded in action then, the family is considered "silver star," and if the military member was killed in action then the family is considered "gold star."

The terms refer to official military service flags, that use star emblems to represent family members serving during war or hostilities. The flag itself is a white field with a red border and a blue, silver or gold star. The blue star symbolizes hope and pride, the silver star, gallantry, and the gold star stands for a sacrifice made for honor and freedom.

Family members who are authorized to display service flags include spouses, parents, step-parents, adoptive parents, foster parents, children, step-children, adopted children, brothers, sisters, half-brothers and half-sisters. Service flags can have up to five stars. Gold stars must be positioned above blue stars or at the top right of the flag. Service flags should be smaller than the U.S. flag and must face out the front window of a residence.

The service flag was originally created in 1917 by Army Capt. Robert L. Queissner, who had two children serving in World War I. Later that year, it was adopted by the governor of Ohio as a symbol for parents with children in the armed services.

During my deployment, I met two gold-star family members who were active duty themselves, Army Sgt. Nicole Van Aalten and Maj. Keiba Estelle. Aalten had been in the Air Force and then separated after her initial enlistment. After 9/11, her brother, who was nine years her junior, asked her to join the Army with him, so she did. They both deployed to Afghanistan together and unfortunately, her little brother was killed in action.

Estelle's husband, Ray, was also an active duty major. He deployed in April 2011 and was killed on his first day of deployment to Kabul. He was one of nine air advisors who were gunned down by an Afghan lieutenant colonel in a briefing room. Ray left behind Keiba, Shayla, his 8-year-old daughter and Raymond, his 5-week old son. I served a year with Aalten and Estelle. They were impressive examples of leadership as they had the strength of steel and the hearts of gold. In April 2012, there was a one-year memorial service held for those who died during the air advisor massacre.

During that same time, the Air Force Air Advisor Academy at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, N.J. dedicated an Air Advisor Memorial to pay tribute to the fallen air advisors and their families. The ceremony honored the nine members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization Air Training Command-Afghanistan who were killed in action April 27, 2011, while serving as advisors and mentors to the people of Afghanistan. The memorial is designed in the shape of two stacked 'A's which represent both air advisors and aircraft wings. The larger outside wall holds plaques with the names of air advisors killed in the line of duty, while the smaller inner wall holds a plaque dedicated to all fallen air advisors. For more information about the Air Advisor Memorial, visit

A U.S. Central Command tradition is to pay tribute by lining the streets to salute those who were killed in action. Their remains were flown to CENTCOM where their families met the aircraft and received their bodies. The members of CENTCOM saluted the hearse as it drove by. I usually stood by Aalten and Estelle. It was gut-wrenching to see the grieving family members as their cars drove by before the hearse.

During remarks at my retirement ceremony Oct. 4, I told my guests about the gold star tradition and recognized both Aalten and Estelle with Swarovski gold star crystal pendants. I explained to everyone that military service does not come without sacrifice and both Aalten's brother and Estelle's husband gave the ultimate sacrifice.