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Sunday’s tree ‘Un-lighting’ ceremony brings closure for many Gold Star families

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Honor Flight Nevada travelers  become closer with those who have lost a loved one in war

By Steve Ranson, Nevada News Group

During the past year, Jeff Evans has experienced a significant change in the way he remembers his father and uncle, both combat veterans who lost their lives in Vietnam more than 50 years ago.

A brother, David, died in 2011 from injuries sustained during his second tour to Iraq.

From Evans’ first trip on Honor Flight Nevada in December 2021 to his second trip as a volunteer on a November 2022 flight to Washington, D.C., the Minden resident has found a niche in being there with like-minded Gold Star families.

The term Gold Star emerged from World War I when families who had a relative in military service displayed a blue star in a front window. The blue star changed, however, to gold if the service member died in a war-like situation.

On each trip, each speaking opportunity, each special occasion, Evans said he has become closer to more Gold Star families who come from many communities including Reno and Sparks. An increasing number of families gather at two special events during the year, a Gold Star tree lighting and hanging of photo ornaments of their loved ones in mid-November and an un-lighting ceremony after the holidays.

This year’s Christmas Tree Un-Lighting is Sunday from 2-6 p.m. near the Atlantis Casino Resort Spa’s Bisto Napa. Both Evans and Honor Flight Nevada founder and executive director Jon Yuspa are inviting the community to honor the men and women who have been remembered.

Yuspa considers the social gathering as a celebration of life for the families who attend the un-lighting.

“There’s not as much grief and tears,” Yuspa said of the un-lighting.

Yuspa said the Honor Flight volunteers brought a decorated miniature tree on their November trip and displayed it next several headstones at the Arlington National Cemetery. One of the headstones at Arlington is that of Eric Ward, a fifth-generation Marine and son of volunteer Steve Ward of Yerington. Eric Ward died in Afghanistan on Feb. 21, 2010.

Watching Ward remember his son was Evans, who was 2 years old when his father died. He doesn’t remember too much of his father or his uncle, but the tree lighting and unlighting continue to offer the retired educator closure and understanding. 

“Our wars and scenarios are different, but our outcomes are all the same,” Evans said at a Wreaths Across America ceremony last month.

“My dad and uncle are on this wall, one of 39 sets of brothers,” Evans said in November at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, which includes a wall displaying more than 58,000 dead and missing men and women.

Evans first traveled to the Vietnam Wall as a teenager after it first opened in November 1982. He has made many trips to the wall, and in 2014, he brought both his sons to the memorial so they could see “their grandpa and great uncle on the wall.”

Now, with two Honor Flights under his belt, Evans is helping as well as healing others.

“We now have a small community, a family,” Evans said, adding he can talk to others about his Gold Star family experiences and also give comfort and reassurance to other families who attend the Honor Fight gatherings and flights.

On the November trip, Evans was a late addition to the manifest, but his familiarity with the Vietnam Wall and his previous trips to the nation’s capital allowed him to connect with both the veterans who served during the war and family members.

Prior to going on the Honor Flights, Evans said he could never stand in front of group without crying when telling the stories of his father, unable and brother. Honor Flight, he said, has been good medicine for him because of the sharing of stories and help others find peace of mind.

Evans specifically remembers one veteran who was looking for his battle buddies. He had a list with 13 names and was searching for each soldier.

“They are here for their buddies,” Evans said.

Evans waves the flag as vigorously as anyone, especially as a retired educator and Gold Star son, nephew and brother.

The day after the veterans and their guardians returned from the November Honor Flight, Evans reflected on the trip with his fellow travelers. Yuspa said it was a time for the families and individuals to share their stories. Evans agrees.

“The first time was very reflective for me,” Evans recounted. “This time (in November) was more about sharing my dad with the guys who had served.”

When the veterans and the Gold Star families posed for photos at specific memorials, Evans said the veterans invited him to be part of their special memories.

“This trip was not like any of my previous trips,” Evans said. “I was humbled and proud to be able to share my dad’s and uncle’s names on The Wall with the heroes that served with them.  Thank you for making this a very special trip for me.  I will never forget you guys.”

Evans, though, hoped the Gold Star families had a time to heal more from their visit.

“ This is an amazing experience and this process lets us know we are not alone and we have family that can identify what we have been through,” he said.

From his experience with both the internet and Honor Flight, Evans said he finds it easier to talk about his father and uncle and to discover from his mother who they were before their untimely deaths. Evans said he had a wonderful stepfather, a great man who looked after him.

His thoughts returned him to his father, who was assigned to the Army Security Agency when he died in 1970. He and another soldier were conducting a low-altitude reconnaissance mission when they crashed into a Vietnamese helicopter.
“They went down,” Evans said, his voice growing softer. “He was three weeks from coming home.”

His 19-year-old uncle David was a helicopter door gunner and was killed on Oct. 24, 1968, during his second tour in Vietnam. Evans said his father and uncle, like all veterans, signed their names on the dotted line and “gave up” their lives to serve. Two years ago, Evans’ son enlisted.

“We live in the greatest county in the world because of our veterans,” Evans said. 

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Steve Ranson
Steve Ranson
Steve Ranson is Editor Emeritus of the Lahontan Valley News.

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