Mother's Loss Leads to Coast Guard Support for Gold Star Families

U.S. Coast Guard
U.S. Coast Guard

The knock on the door came at 1:12 a.m. on Dec. 31, 2013.

William C. "Billy" Trapnell IV, a petty officer with Coast Guard Sector Boston, had died from sudden cardiac arrest. He was 28.

"Until you go through it, you never quite get it," Trapnell's mother, Suzanne Sheaffer, said recently. "We had just seen him Sunday and by Tuesday, we were told he was gone."

Trapnell, who also worked as a paramedic, had just completed an emergency call on Dec. 30 and was back at the station restocking an ambulance when he was stricken, his mother said.

His colleagues performed CPR on him and he was transported to the hospital, where he was pronounced dead.

Trapnell enlisted in the Army at the age of 17, serving for six years including a tour in Iraq before joining the Coast Guard.

He switched to the Coast Guard, his mother said, "because it's more in line with law enforcement and paramedics," and he wanted to be closer to his wife.

At the time of his death, he'd served almost six years in the Coast Guard.

In the days and weeks after her son's death, Sheaffer, who lives in Harrisburg, Pa., about 400 miles away from where her son was stationed, realized there was a void in the Coast Guard's long-term support for survivors.

She shared her story with Coast Guard officials in hopes they'd help to find a way to further its support.

Since 9/11, the Coast Guard has lost 392 active duty and reserve members. The majority of these deaths didn't happen while the service member was on the job.

"They're traffic accidents or illnesses. There are very few that are operational," Brian Behlke, the service's only full-time casualty assistance officer, said of the deaths.

As the chief of Coast Guard Casualty Matters, Behlke oversees the support of family members whose loved ones have become ill or injured or have died.

He is the first civilian to hold the job. Previously, the position had been manned by different Coast Guard lieutenants, he said.

Behlke has a list of more than 50 chief warrant officers and chief petty officers that he can tap into when an incident occurs.

Those officers serve as decedent affairs officer, a collateral duty, and are located at Coast Guard bases throughout the country, and as casualty assistance calls officers, who are stationed at individual Coast Guard units.

In the case of a service member who has died, a casualty assistance calls officer closest in distance to the service member's family will notify next of kin and help them with funeral or memorial arrangements and with obtaining benefits.

That usually lasts 30 days to ensure arrangements and the appropriate administrative support has been taken care of.

"There was no outreach to see how they were doing a year later, two years later or further," Behlke said.

Some casualty assistance calls officers, though, choose to stay in contact with the families because they've developed a closer relationship with them, he said.

Behlke is working to establish a centralized database of Gold Star families, which currently doesn't exist, that will allow the Coast Guard to offer further support to these families and also connect them with one another.

That's where Sheaffer, Trapnell's mother, comes in.

She was appointed as the Coast Guard's Gold Star volunteer coordinator in December 2015.

"I'm the aftercare," she said, noting that the casualty assistance officers provide the immediate support to families.

While it was her experience of losing her son that led to the creation of the Coast Guard's Gold Star program, it was the death of another Coast Guardsman that led to the program "going live."

On Dec. 9, 2015, Robert Trippel, a seaman apprentice stationed in Elizabeth City, N.C., died at the age of 19. After his death, Trippel's grandmother reached out to Sheaffer asking for support.

At that point, Sheaffer told Coast Guard officials, "We can't wait any longer. We've got to go live."

Gold Star programs are relatively new across all of the services, with the Coast Guard's being the newest.

"We're trying catch up," Behlke said, noting the service is much smaller and has fewer resources than the others.

The Coast Guard's first concerted effort to bring together Gold Star families and honor them will happen on Sept. 10 at the Secretaries Cup game at the Coast Guard Academy between the school and the Merchant Marine Academy.

The Coast Guard still is seeking families to honor at the game. Those interested can email Suzanne Sheaffer at or Brian Behlke at

Additionally, Sheaffer has created a private Facebook group for Gold Star Families at

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