BEAUFORT — Emotions were stronger than the blustery northeast wind Sunday afternoon as several hundred people gathered for the unveiling and dedication of the Carteret County Gold Star Family Monument on the grounds of the Carteret County Courthouse.
One of those who attended on the fall-like day was David Friedrich of Belhaven, who rode his motorcycle to Beaufort and spread on the monument some of the ashes of his 26-year-old son, U.S. Army Sgt. David Travis Friedrich. Sgt. Friedrich died on the exact same date – Sept. 20 – in a 2003 mortar attack at a U.S. base near the Abu Ghraib prison on the outskirts of Baghdad.
“I’ve driven 85,000 miles and scattered his ashes in all 50 states,” an emotional David Friedrich said. “I’ve been to 40 of these monuments.”
The Beaufort monument is the 66th of its kind across the country.
When asked if the monument visits help ease the pain of losing his son, Mr. Friedrich said, “Catharsis, that’s the answer to your question.”
It was indeed cathartic for many, especially Carteret County Gold Star mothers Trish Slape of Morehead City and Maria Myers of Beaufort. They were there for the culmination of years spent raising the more than $60,000 needed to build and install the gleaming black granite monument, which bears the names of their sons, Sgt. James Slape and Capt. Donald Lee.
“I had no doubt we’d succeed,” Ms. Slape said of the fundraising effort, led by Ms. Myers, before the start of the nearly one-hour ceremony. “One time, one of our sponsors asked me ‘What is the plan if you don’t meet your goal?’ I said, ‘That’s not an option.’”
Ms. Slape said she has good days and bad as she deals with the grief of losing her son, who graduated from at West Carteret High School. But Sunday, despite the emotion, was one of the good days. She smiled frequently, wore a tie-dyed American flag shirt and called herself an ex-hippie.
“I’m proud, and thankful we’re finally done,” she said.
Ms. Myers, dressed in white, agreed.
“I feel overwhelmed to finally have it here,” she said of the monument. “It’s beautiful, and I’m so thankful to our sponsors who donated and to all the others who helped.”
She mentioned her friend, Fred Harvey of Beaufort, and Ms. Slape.
“It would have taken a lot longer without them,” Ms. Myers said.
Like Ms. Slape, Ms. Myers said she had no doubt the dream of honoring their sons, as well as the families of others who have died in military service, would come true.
Sgt. Slape, 23, died in 2018 in the Helmand Province of Afghanistan while serving with the N.C. Army National Guard. Capt. Lee, 35, an Army Reserve Apache helicopter pilot, died in a training exercise in 1997. His death led to a mission for the now 81-year-old Ms. Myers. The two sons are also honored on benches at the monument. The message on Sgt. Slape’s reads, “Never Forgotten.” Capt. Lee’s reads, “In Loving Memory.”
Richard Johnston of Sanford, whose son, Sgt. James Johnston, died in combat June 25, 2019, in Afghanistan at age 24 while serving as a sergeant in the U.S. Army Special Forces, also was there, with his fiancée, Donene Bouck, and Sgt. Johnston’s two young half-brothers, Brognan and William Johnston.
Mr. Johnston, himself a veteran, was wearing a Hawaiian shirt, a joyous fashion statement his late son often sported in high school and while serving to “lighten the mood.”
“I wouldn’t have missed this for anything,” Mr. Johnston said. “I’m so glad it is a success.”
Some who attended Sunday weren’t members of Gold Star families, but still felt compelled to be there.
“I’m here for the late mom of my best friend,” said Randall Cox of Virginia, who drove his motorcycle seven hours to Beaufort after he heard about the event. He said his friend died in Iraq in 2006 and his friend’s mother died not long after that.
“He was a Marine,” Mr. Cox said of his friend. “I would have gone (into the Marines), too, but I couldn’t get in. What happened to him could have been me.”
The ceremony featured an at-times rousing, at-times somber talk by nearly 97-year-old Hershel “Woody” Williams, founder of the Woody Williams Foundation, which helps groups erect the monuments.
Mr. Williams is the oldest living recipient of the U.S. Medal of Honor in the Japanese theater of World War II. A U.S. Marine, he was in the long, fierce battle for Iwo Jima in the Pacific, and following the war, worked for the Department of Veterans Affairs for 33 years.
He explained the Gold Star movement began during World War I, when a California mother of a service member started with a blue star flag placed in the windows of homes of service members serving in the war. She later added a gold star flag to place over the blue star flag to signify that the service member “didn’t make it home,” Mr. Williams said.
He said his foundation is proud to help make Gold Star Family monuments a reality. The Beaufort monument is the second in North Carolina, and there are monuments in all but two U.S. states, Montana and North Dakota.
But, he said of those states, “We’re going to get them.”
The foundation also is working to get a monument in Washington, D.C., where, he said, “there is not one indication, one monument … that pays tribute to the families who gave and sacrificed for us. We must have that corrected.”
As for the Beaufort monument, it, like the others, is two-sided. One side bears the words, “A tribute to Gold Star Families and Relatives who sacrificed a Loved One for our Freedom.”
The other side tells a story, in four panels, of homeland, family, patriotism and sacrifice. The scenes on each panel reflect each community’s Gold Star families and their fallen, in this case Sgt. Slape and Capt. Lee. At the center of the tribute is a cut-out that represents the loved ones who paid the ultimate sacrifice in the name of freedom.
“This is my first trip to Beaufort,” Mr. Williams said. “Thank you all for being here, but this is not about me. It’s about them,” he said, pointing to Ms. Slape and Ms. Myers.
The monument tells the families of deceased service members “their sacrifices … for freedom and our way of life … will not be forgotten,” Mr. Williams said.
The emotional highlight came when Mr. Williams invited all Gold Star Family members present to help unveil the monument, and then to place, one-by-one, yellow carnations, photos and other items of remembrance at the base of the monument.
A gasp went up from the audience, audible over the noise of the wind and the flapping of tents and flags, when the tarp was lifted.
County Chairperson Bill Smith called it “a glorious day for Carteret County.”
The ceremony featured patriotic music and the anthems of all five branches of the military, played by the 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing Band from Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point. Cinda Lee sang the National Anthem. At the end of the ceremony, a bugler played Taps and riflemen fired single shots over the site.
Many people lingered to talk to each other, touch the monument and examine the photos. Some wept as the roars of dozens of motorcycles, carrying home veterans who had attended, drifted on the wind.
Mr. Friedrich was shooting photos of happy young boys and girls at the ceremony.
“They’re what this is all about,” he said.
Contact Brad Rich at 252-864-1532; email Brad@thenewstimes.com; or follow on Twitter @brichccnt.