When ground is broken Sunday for a monument for Gold Star families in Fall River, Mass., Steve Sammis will be there as much more than a member of the local organizing committee.
It's Sammis and many others like him who inspired Medal of Honor recipient Hershel "Woody" Williams to begin his quest to place at least one tribute to the families of the fallen in every state. After two years, Williams said, the project is "going leaps and bounds, increasing constantly."
"That's what we're after, of course -- to get a memorial monument in every community that we can. Not only one in every state, but we want one in many, many communities because every community, large or small, has someone who gave up a loved one so you and I could stay free."
There are completed monuments in five cities: Institute, W.Va.; Tampa, Fla.; Valley Forge, Pa.; Lafayette, Ind.; and Fairfield, Ohio. An additional 20, including Fall River's, are in various stages of planning, fundraising and completion.
According to Williams, it was the second monument, at Valley Forge, that gave the effort its biggest boost.
"It has made a terrific difference," he said. "It just couldn't have been in a better place. So many people know about Valley Forge, visit Valley Forge. It has a historical value that added to what we're doing. From that point on, it just absolutely ballooned."
The word spread to Fall River when Bruce Aldrich read about the project in the Marine Corps League's Semper Fi magazine.
"I know quite a few Gold Star families in the area from being in the Marine Corps League, from participating in funerals and honor guards," he said, "so I just thought, ‘You know, there's nothing here for the Gold Star families in this area."
Aldrich got in touch with Williams' grandson Brent Casey, the Hershel Woody Williams Medal of Honor Foundation's executive director, and told him he might be interested in getting involved. "He sent me all the information and said, ‘Whatever you need to help you get going, we're right here to help you.' So that's how it all started," Aldrich said.
For Sammis, life as a Gold Star father started in 2003, when his son became one of the first U.S. casualties of Operation Iraqi Freedom. Ben Sammis, 29, and fellow Marine Capt. Travis A. Ford were killed when their helicopter crashed during combat operations near Ali Aziziyal, Iraq.
"There's sad tears and there's happy tears," Steve Sammis said. "I wrote a poem once that said, ‘There's a wound across my soul that'll never heal.' And that's exactly what it is. ... We as parents will live with this for the rest of our lives."
As the parents of a Marine who died more than a decade ago, Sammis and his wife, Beth, often find themselves comforting the families of those who died more recently. "It's one of the things that go with the territory after so many years," he said. "The consolee becomes the consoler. And they've only just begun their journey. That's the tough part. We feel very fortunate -- if you Google some things about Ben, you'll see that there is an awful lot that has been written about him. You thought you knew your son, but what you realize is that he was your son, but he meant so much to everybody else."
Sammis calls the Fall River memorial a fitting tribute.
"Here's something I hope Gold Star families in Massachusetts will feel an attachment to, and I understand that that attachment will mean something different for every one of us."
Williams will be the guest of honor at Sunday's event, making a side trip from the Congressional Medal of Honor Society annual meeting in Boston. Brent Casey has seen the effect the Iwo Jima battle hero has on local efforts to build memorials.
Casey said the two went to Knoxville recently, where the campaign was about $10,000 short of its goal. "We met with some Gold Star families, and they invited some sponsors there. Well, we needed 10 (thousand) and I think they raised 13 or 14. People just wrote checks. And part of the reason, I'm sure, is because he's there," Casey said.
"You always have to have a contact in every community," Williams said. "Brent and I can't do it (alone). So once you get a contact in that community, it's up to that individual to form a committee and get it done."