By Army Sgt. 1st Class Michael J. Carden
American Forces Press Service
Sept. 25, 2009 - Ruth Stonesifer dreamed of a quiet life in Kintnersville, Penn., passing her days quilting for her three grandchildren. That dream was shattered when her son, Army Spc. Kristofor Stonesifer, died in a helicopter crash in Pakistan, becoming one of the first two American casualties in the global war on terror.
"I found out they were deployed only after he was killed," she said, referring to the Oct. 19, 2001, crash. "He called on Oct 9, but couldn't tell me they were flying out that night. I didn't realize that one of my children would really pay the ultimate sacrifice."
Rather than letting herself become consumed with grief, Stonesifer used her experience to help other mothers of fallen servicemembers deal with theirs.
She became an active member of the American Gold Star Mothers Inc., the nonprofit group founded in 1929 by 25 mothers who lost sons and daughters in the line of duty while serving in the U.S. armed forces. In June, Stonesifer became president of the group that now has more than 900 chartered members throughout the country.
Each year on the last Sunday in September, the nation observes Gold Star Mother's Day and its culture of support that has helped mothers and families grieve for more than 80 years. Congress designated the observance in 1936, and the president issues a proclamation each year. This year, President Barack Obama has proclaimed Sept. 27 Gold Star Mother's Day.
In an interview with American Forces Press Service, Stonesifer said she has found a renewed sense of hope by participating in Gold Star Mother's Day activities for the past seven years.
"[Gold Star Mother's Day] helps other people realize that freedom comes with a price tag and any Gold Star mother or Gold Star family knows the cost is pretty high," she said. "But that's why we live in this country and why we can enjoy the freedoms that we have."
This year's observance will be the first led by Gold Star Mothers of the post-9/11 generation of fallen servicemembers, Stonesifer said. Mothers of sons and daughters killed in Afghanistan and Iraq have organized events here in the nation's capital at the Vietnam War Memorial Wall, at several sections of Arlington National Cemetery and with a wreath-laying ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
Although Stonesifer has come a long way in coping with the loss of her son, she said, the road to peace and understanding was a difficult journey. Everyone who loses a loved one has to make progress on their own terms.
When her son's death left her depressed and exhausted, she said she spent the ensuing months "on autopilot" and sometimes coped with her grief by pretending he was still alive. She used to imagine Kris, an Army Ranger and philosophy major, parachuting out of an airplane, or sitting in a coffee house reading classic literature or writing in his journal.
"You think you're in a really bad movie that you actually want to walk out of but can't," she said. "Nothing seemed real anymore."
A few months after Kris's memorial, Stonesifer acquired an urge to do volunteer work, following in the examples of her two sons' and husband's military service. Her husband, Ric Stonesifer Sr., is a retired Navy captain with 27 years of service, and her eldest son, Ric Jr., recently retired from the Army after 20 years.
Kris's sacrifices inspired her to "get back out into the world and do things," she said. That's when she became a Gold Star Mother.
"When I first learned about the Gold Star Mothers, I knew I wanted to be with other Gold Star moms and to receive help," she said. "I was reaching out at first for a support group, but that phased out pretty fast, because I realized that by helping other people, you find a way out of the darkness and become a much more positive and powerful person."
Gold Star Mother's Day 2003 at Arlington National Cemetery was her first official event with the organization. The loss of Kris was still fresh in her mind then, and the thought of burying him less than two years earlier was still difficult to think about, she said.
Stonesifer said she still battled with the fact the she didn't even know Kris was deployed. She recalled the news reports of the day his helicopter went down, but thought he was in training to be an Army Ranger at Fort Benning, Ga. It never dawned on her that he was involved. She later learned he voluntarily left his Ranger training to be with his unit in Afghanistan.
Being at the observance with other women who understood her suffering left a surprisingly positive and lasting effect on her. She said she discovered a new sense of hope that Gold Star Mother's Day.
"It felt good to be with other Gold Star moms and to be recognized as an entity that can turn negatives into positives by volunteering," Stonesifer said. "It was good to be with other moms who were trying to make a difference, rather than just sitting around and grieving."
Stonesifer said she found direction and a new mission in life. Her appreciation for the group grew as she learned more about its history and tradition of honoring military veterans, she added.
"When you consider [the group] is 81 years old, and we were founded by a mom whose son was shot down in World War I, it just gives a sense of pride to know that we follow some amazing women who put their heart and soul into this organization to keep it alive," she said.
Volunteering and giving back to the military community is what makes the organization thrive, she said. For the past five years, Stonesifer has elevated her quilting hobby into a full-fledged program that donates quilts to hospitalized military members recovering from combat wounds.
This is the example she advocates to her fellow Gold Star Mothers. Whether it's giving time to military hospitals or raising money for the organization's many charity projects, helping others is a philosophy the group's members live by. It's how they honor their fallen children's legacy, she explained.
Kris continues to inspire his mother even today, she said. A self-described homebody, Stonesifer, 62, recently made a tandem skydive from an altitude of more than 20,000 feet in honor of her son's memory and spontaneous nature. Kris would never have imagined his mother jumping out of an airplane, she said.
"I'm really glad I did it," she said of her skydive. "[Kris] is with me in spirit all the time. This is how he looked at life, and if I don't do the same thing by learning and going on every day, I dishonor his memory."
Being a Gold Star Mother may not be as intense as jumping out of an airplane, but that leap of faith is similar to the leap she made in joining the group. She let her guard down and found that things are not as frightening as they may seem.
"Even though you may feel like you're alone in the world, you're really not," she said. "There is life afterward.
"My life as a Gold Star Mother is fuller and richer, and I appreciate the time with my family, and I appreciate time with friends and having new experiences that I never would've had without the organization and my son's inspiration."