Gold Star Family Members Can Now Become Congressional Fellows

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Jane Horton stands in Arlington National Cemetery.
Jane Horton, widow of Army Spc. Christopher David Horton, guides members of the Golden State Warriors basketball team through section 60 of Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Va., Feb. 25, 2015. (DoD Photo)

To give members of families of the fallen first-hand experience in Congress, lawmakers approved a yearlong fellowship for them Tuesday.

"It will allow Gold Star Families to both participate in and learn about the democracy their loved one gave the ultimate sacrifice to protect," said Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-California, while introducing the resolution on the floor.

Passed by voice vote, the paid fellowship is named in memory of Army Sgt. 1st Class Sean Cooley and Spc. Christopher Horton. The fellowship will be open to children, stepchildren, spouses and siblings of service members who died while serving for any reason other than "willful misconduct" and the families of those who died from a service-connected disability within four years of leaving service.

The fellowship will be in Washington, D.C., or in the district office of a representative or delegate in the House.

Related: 30 Percent of Veterans Have Had Suicidal Thoughts, New Survey Finds

Horton's widow, Jane, said the program will help Gold Star families "give purpose to pain" and have a "living legacy" close to representatives, reminding them of what their votes mean. Only 15 percent of Congress has served in the military.

"You can walk into almost any members' offices and there'll be a sign that says, 'We hire heroes," Horton said. "And there's never been anything like that to include Gold Star families or the families left behind in war."

Horton worked with Rep. Trent Kelly, R-Mississippi, to create the program, which she said will probably take a few months to set up. It will mirror Congress' current wounded warrior program.

"It's a beautiful thing, you know, of the people, by the people and for the people," Horton said. "I really feel that this bill is the epitome of that process. It's something I was passionate about. I met a member of Congress who cared, and so we worked on the bill together, and here it is."

After watching from the House balcony with other Gold Star families as the resolution passed, she posted on Facebook, "Today was a humbling day -- and one that reminds us that in America -- the land of the free, and home of the brave, anything can be done if you don't give up."

Cooley, 35, a member of the Mississippi Army National Guard's 150th Combat Engineer Battalion, died in 2005 during Operation Iraqi Freedom when an improvised explosive device detonated near his vehicle.

Horton, 26, died in 2011 during Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan. He was attached to the 45th Infantry Brigade Combat Team of Oklahoma National Guard and is buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

"Nothing can ever fill the void left by the loss of a loved one who was killed serving the nation," Lofgren said. "But we in Congress should be doing everything we can to help lift up those who have suffered that unfathomable loss."

-- Dorothy Mills-Gregg can be reached at dorothy.mills-gregg@monster.com.

Read more: 30 Percent of Veterans Have Had Suicidal Thoughts, New Survey Finds

This story was updated Oct. 31 to reflect expanded eligibility for the program. 

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