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What Happens When A Blue Star Turns Gold
April 12, 2002, began like any other Friday for 10-year-old Ashlynne Haycock. She woke up, ate breakfast, went to school, and got an A on a spelling test.
“My dad was always the person who helped me study for tests,” she told Task & Purpose.
She was ecstatic to show her father, Army Sgt. 1st Class Jeffrey Haycock, the result of her hard work. But that would have to wait a week. The day before, he had flown to California for a pre-deployment exercise at the Fort Irwin National Training Center, and was expected to return home to their house in Fort Sill when his training was complete.
However, he suffered a heart attack while training and died suddenly. He was only 38.
That Friday, unknown to the Haycocks, would be anything but normal. That was the day Ashlynne, her mother Nichole, and her brothers Colten and Weston, learned what happens when a blue star turns gold.
“I walked home from school, and it was like something out of every military movie you’ve ever seen,” she said.
Ashlynne, though still a young child, was the first to learn of her father’s death while her mother, an Air Force veteran, was still at work.
“All the neighbors were standing outside waiting for the children to come home from school,” she said. “Everyone realized what was happening at once, but no one could stop them before I had seen the two men standing at the door.”
Those men, who were tasked with giving the death notification, wouldn’t divulge anything to Ashlynne without her mother present. So she stayed at a neighbor’s house for three hours until Nichole could be located. Ashlynne, however, admitted she knew what was happening before her mother had the chance to tell her.
“I walked in that front door after she got the notification and I looked at her and go, ‘Dad’s dead, isn’t he?’ Ashlynne said. “She didn’t have to say anything.”
But what came next only made the untimely death of their loving husband, doting father, and dedicated soldier that much harder.
Photo courtesy of Ashlynn Haycock
According to Ashlynne, Nichole was essentially catatonic for three days after the loss of Jeffrey. Colten, who was 8, has autism, and didn’t understand what had happened. Weston, just 4 years old at the time, didn’t have the capacity to comprehend the notion of death yet.
Things got worse for the Haycock family before they got better.
“The fact that he died before he could even deploy was what was so hard for us to comprehend,” she said.
In the wake of his death, Nichole was left with a mountain of paperwork to sift through. The Army made them move off base six months later. Colten was denied admission to a program for the disabled, because his father didn’t die in a combat-related situation. Weston, Ashlynne said, didn’t just lose his dad, he also lost the house where he grew up — the only one he’d ever really known.
They were the first post-9/11 family to suffer a casualty at Fort Sill. And for Ashlynne, the few months she spent still attending the school on base provided little solace. Her classmates didn’t recognize what she was going through.
“We heard things like, ‘You’re not a military family anymore, you shouldn’t be here,’” she said. “Kids don’t understand.”
Local support groups didn’t help much either. Because a majority of the kids there had lost a grandparent or a distant relative, the Haycocks felt that no one could really relate to the incredible loss they had just experienced.
They reached a turning point, however, when Nichole returned to work and began putting all her effort into finding the best outlets for her children — namely the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors national seminar, which supports and advocates on behalf of all Gold Star families.
According to Ashlynne, the other survivors with TAPS became a second family.
Still, not everyone comes back from losing a loved one and is able to overcome it. For Nichole, the burden of the Gold Star became too heavy to carry. The loss of her husband was not something she could move past. She took her own life on April 25, 2011 — what would have been her and Jeffrey’s 19th wedding anniversary.
Ashlynne, who was then finishing her sophomore year at American University in Washington, D.C., lost her sole-surviving parent.
But she doesn’t blame her mother, nor is she upset with her.
“My parents, the way they loved each other, is something I could only describe as what you see in the movies, and she never got over it,” Ashlynne said. “It destroyed her.”
Photo courtesy of Ashlynne Haycock
For nearly nine years after Jeffrey’s death, Nichole’s only mission was to focus on her children. But she herself never recovered after losing him. According to Ashlynne, her mother was also suffering from post-traumatic stress — something she didn’t even realize until a few years after her mother’s death.
“I want her to know I have no anger towards her,” Ashlynne said. “She protected us as much as she could.”
With the help and support of other survivors, and her extended family at TAPS, Ashlynne and her brothers have come a long way since the death of their parents. But they approach their family history very differently.
“I have my parents’ flags hanging in my living room, and I always want to talk about my dad,” Ashlynn said.
Weston, however, is more quiet about it. None of his roommates know that he attends college for free as a survivor, and he doesn’t keep family photos in his dorm room.
Though Ashlynne said he had a harder time when they were growing up, Weston is now on track to finish up college soon.
Ashlynne, as a result of experiencing firsthand what it means to pay for college alone as a survivor, now leads TAPS’ effort to make sure that all surviving family members can afford go to college without the burden of excessive student loans or debt.
She knows that her father, who wanted so badly for all his children to have the best education possible, would be proud of what she is doing for all other surviving families.
“My dad was my hero,” she said. “Everything I’ve done has been to honor him.”
The hardest days now come on the anniversaries of her parents’ deaths, holidays, and birthdays. But even more, Ashlynne said, she aches for the future life events they won’t be able to attend.
“It’s the idea that when I get married in a few years, my dad’s not going to walk me down the aisle. My mom’s never going help me pick out a wedding dress. They’re never going to meet their grandkids,” she said. “You don’t think about it until you’re living those events.”
When a blue star turns gold, she said, “everything changes, not just life without that person. But there is so much support out there if you’re willing to ask for help.”
If your family has lost a service member, the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors can help. Call 800-959-TAPS.
‘I made promises to the people that I lost’— How the Iraq war forged a Navy SEAL’s path to Harvard Medical School and NASA
Navy Lt. Jonny Kim went viral last week when NASA announced that he and 10 other candidates (including six other service members) became the newest members of the agency's hallowed astronaut corps. A decorated Navy SEAL and graduate of Harvard Medical School, Kim in particular seems to have a penchant for achieving people's childhood dreams.
However, Kim shared with Task & Purpose that his motivation for living life the way he has stems not so much from starry-eyed ambition, but from the pain and loss he suffered both on the battlefields of Iraq and from childhood instability while growing up in Los Angeles. Kim tells his story in the following Q&A, which was lightly edited for length and clarity:
New Vietnam War movie 'The Last Full Measure' takes some well-deserved shots at the military’s award process
Todd Robinson's upcoming Vietnam War drama, The Last Full Measure, is a story of two battles: One takes place during an ambush in the jungles of Vietnam in 1966, while the other unfolds more than three decades later as the survivors fight to see one pararescueman's valor posthumously recognized.
On April 11, 1966, Airman 1st Class William H. Pitsenbarger (played by Jeremy Irvine) responded to a call to evacuate casualties belonging to a company with the Army's 1st Infantry Division near Cam My during a deadly ambush, the result of a search and destroy mission dubbed Operation Abilene.
In the ensuing battle, the unit suffered more than 80 percent casualties as their perimeter was breached. Despite the dangers on the ground, Pitsenbarger refused to leave the soldiers trapped in the jungle and waved off the medevac chopper, choosing to fight, and ultimately die, alongside men he'd never met before that day.
Decades later, those men fought to see Pitsenbarger's Air Force Cross upgraded to the Medal of Honor. On Dec. 8, 2000, they won, when Pitsenbarger was posthumously awarded the nation's highest decoration for valor.
The Last Full Measure painstakingly chronicles that long desperate struggle, and the details of the battle are told in flashbacks by the soldiers who survived the ambush, played by a star-studded cast that includes Samuel L. Jackson, Ed Harris, and William Hurt.
After Operation Abilene, some of the men involved moved on with their lives, or tried to, and the film touches on the many ways they struggled with their grief, trauma, and in the case of some, feelings of guilt. For the characters in The Last Full Measure, seeing Pitsenbarger awarded the Medal of Honor might be the one decent thing they pull out of that war, remarks Jackson's character, Lt. Billy Takoda, one of the soldier's whose life Pitsenbarger saved.
There are a lot of threads to follow in The Last Full Measure, individual strands of a larger story that feel misplaced, redacted, or cut short — at times, violently. But this is not a criticism, quite the opposite in fact. This tangled web is part of the larger narrative at play as Scott Huffman, a fictitious modern-day Pentagon bureaucrat played by Sebastian Stan, tries to piece together what actually happened that fateful day so many years ago.
At the start, Huffman — the person who ultimately becomes Pitsenbarger's champion in Washington — wants nothing to do with the airman's story, the medal, or the Vietnam veterans who want to see his sacrifice recognized. For Huffman, it's a burdensome assignment, just one more box to check before he can move on to brighter and better career prospects. Not surprising then that Pentagon bureaucrats and Washington political operators are regarded with skepticism throughout the movie.
When Takoda first meets Huffman, the Army vet grills the overdressed and out-of-his-depth government flack about his intentions, calls him an FNG (fucking new guy) and tosses Huffman's recorder into the nearby river where he's fishing with his grandkids.
Sebastian Stan stars as Scott Huffman alongside Samuel Jackson as Billy Takoda in "The Last Full Measure."(IMDB)
As Huffman spends more time with the grunts who fought alongside Pitsenbarger, and the Air Force PJs who flew with him that day, he, and the audience, come to see their campaign, and their frustration over the lack of progress, in a different light.
In one of the movie's later moments, The Last Full Measure offers an explanation for why Pitsenbarger's award languished for so long. The theory? Pitsenbarger's Medal of Honor citation was downgraded to a service cross, not because his actions didn't meet the standard associated with the nation's highest award for valor, but because his rank didn't.
"The conjecture among the Mud Soldiers and Bien Hoa Eagles is that Pitsenbarger was passed over because he was enlisted," Robinson, who wrote and directed The Last Full Measure, told Task & Purpose.
"As for the events in the film, Pitsenbarger's upgrade was clearly ignored for decades and items had been lost — whether that was deliberate is up for discussion but we feel we captured the spirit of the issues at hand either way," he said. "Some of these questions are simply impossible to answer with 100% certainty as no one really knows."
The cynicism in The Last Full Measure is overt, but to be entirely honest, it feels warranted. While watching the film, I couldn't help but think back to recent stories of battlefield bravery, like that of Army Sgt. 1st Class Alwyn Cashe, who ran into a burning Bradley three times in Iraq to pull out his wounded men — a feat of heroism that cost him his life, and inspired an ongoing campaign to see Cashe awarded the Medal of Honor.
There's no shortage of op-eds by current and former service members who see the military's awards process as slow and cumbersome at best, and biased or broken at worst, and it's refreshing to see that criticism reflected in a major war movie. And sure, like plenty of military dramas, The Last Full Measure has some sappy moments, but on the whole, it's a damn good film.
The Last Full Measure hits theaters on Jan. 24.
With ISIS trying to reorganize itself into an insurgency, most attacks on U.S. and allied forces in Iraq are being carried out by Shiite militias, said Air Force Maj. Gen. Alex Grynkewich, the deputy commander for operations and intelligence for U.S. troops in Iraq and Syria.
"In the time that I have been in Iraq, we've taken a couple of casualties from ISIS fighting on the ground, but most of the attacks have come from those Shia militia groups, who are launching rockets at our bases and frankly just trying to kill someone to make a point," Grynkewich said Wednesday at an event hosted by the Air Force Association's Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies.
The Defense Department just took a major step towards making the dream of a flying drone carrier a reality.
The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency's air-launched and recoverable X-61A Gremlins Air Vehicle finally conducted a maiden flight in November 2019, Gremlin contractor Dynetics announced on Friday.