In this episode my mother, Diane DeLuzio, shares what it is like to be a Gold Star Mother after losing her son (my brother) in Afghanistan.
We talk about the coping mechanisms she used and how that turned into an outlet to help others.
Links and Resources
Scott DeLuzio: 00:00 Hey everybody, this is the Drive On Podcast where we talk about issues affecting veterans after they get out of the military. I'm your host, Scott DeLuzio. And now let's get on with the show.
Scott DeLuzio: 00:15 Hey everyone, thanks for tuning into the Drive On Podcast. Today I have Diane DeLuzio who is not only my mother but also a Gold Star Mother. We're going to talk about some of the things that she found to be helpful and also not so helpful throughout her grieving process after losing her son and my brother. So, I'll let you introduce yourself and maybe talk a little bit about becoming a Gold Star mother and how that whole process kind of took place.
Diane DeLuzio: 00:41 Hi. Thanks for having me. When both you and Steven were deployed to Afghanistan in 2010, I worried because I'm a worrier. Even when there's nothing to worry about, I still worry. But what I worried about was that you were going to be deployed and you were going to miss the first year of your son's life and maybe bonding with him would be difficult. With Steven, I worried about things like, I saw a picture of him smoking and I thought maybe he was going to become a smoker and wouldn't be able to quit. Those are the kinds of things that I worried about. I don't think I let my mind worry about tragedy, where somebody lost a limb or worse-case scenario, didn't come home alive. I didn't worry about those things. But that's what happened on August 22, 2010. We got a knock on the door and two uniformed soldiers were standing at our front door and the first reaction was, which one?
Diane DeLuzio: 01:45 Because we knew why they were there. We just didn't know whether it was you or Steven. And it was very difficult those first hours and days and weeks, especially the first hours and days because you weren't home either. As a mom, I was also worried about you and thinking you were there alone. But I also came to learn that you weren't alone and neither was Steve when he died because the army or military service in general [takes care of their own.] I've come to know from the army's perspective that they take care of you. They helped you to get home as quickly as you could. They provided an opportunity for you to escort Steve from Afghanistan and I know that there were people who loved and cared for Steven who were with him when he died.
Diane DeLuzio: 02:37 And as a mom, I didn't come to realize that until almost a year later. But it really was a healing thing for me to know that Steven didn't die alone. It is at that point that I really learned what a Gold Star Mother was. Prior to that, I was a Blue Star Mother times two and I had a Blue Star flag hanging in my front door. Blue Star just means you have service members of your family in active duty or in the service. And that was you and Steve. But after Steven died, I joined a club that no one wants to join, it's the Gold Star Mothers. And that's just someone who has lost a son or daughter in service to our country.
Scott DeLuzio: 03:26 So, after all that happened, obviously Steve came home and we had all sorts of different services and things like that that were presented to us and made available to us through the military. What were some of the things that you got involved with that you used to help with the grieving process that you were going through? Some were probably more helpful than others but what were some of those things that you tried to do to get through dealing with the loss of your son.
Diane DeLuzio: 04:11 At the very beginning, I really wanted to be alone.
Diane DeLuzio: 04:16 I wanted to cry privately. I wanted to pray privately. I wanted to be private. I know that doesn't work for everyone. I did want to speak Steven's name as often as I could but I wanted to do it more on a private basis. I would say that over time, the army and the support staff that we had with our crisis assistance officers, they were there for that first year in whatever we needed them to do. I can't thank them enough for that. They were wonderful. But really after that year, I started to think, now what? I don't want to sit around and just be sad all the time. I want to be able to speak Steven's name and talk about him and not make people feel uncomfortable because some people are uncomfortable, but I wanted to be able to do some good with that.
Diane DeLuzio: 05:11 And actually the original Gold Star Mother, I think her name is Grace Siebold, she was one who actually would go to veterans’ hospitals and talk to veterans who were recovering from injuries or whatever. She used that before her son was killed. But even after her son was killed, she continued to do good for the veteran community and that helped her feel better. And so, when I actually researched her and her story a little bit, I decided I wanted to do the same thing but I really wasn't sure what I wanted to do. I wasn't sure what I could do but it was just by luck that someone got in touch with me, Sue Martucci actually, who was the chairman at the time of the Connecticut Trees of Honor Memorial and it was in its infancy stages.
Diane DeLuzio: 06:04 Sue had a vision to create a memorial in Connecticut to honor the fallen heroes from the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, the recent wars. And she contacted me and asked me if I would be interested in being the Gold Star liaison to the committee. That was it, just to run ideas by me to see whether or not anything would be possibly offensive or hurtful or insensitive to Gold Star families. And I agreed to do it and we clicked off very well. At the first couple of meetings I went to, we had a connection and over time and over the years I started taking on more and more responsibilities in the Trees of Honor Memorial board. I found it very healing for me. I got to meet some wonderful Gold Star families, mothers and fathers, siblings, wives, husbands. Through our conversations and our willingness to work together to build this memorial, I think we were all starting our healing process.
Diane DeLuzio: 07:09 You mentioned some things that might not have been so helpful. There were other organizations by the way, Fisher House and others that I also participated with where I found it very healing. I met veterans, I met injured soldiers and I helped to raise money for building and constructing the Fisher House in Connecticut. That was very rewarding and very helpful for me in my healing process. But what I didn't want to do and occasionally found myself in a position of being sad. Of course, I'm always going to be sad that Steven was lost. I don't know what he would be today. I don't know if he would have children or all of that. I miss that. And I'm sad for that. But I wanted my life and my efforts to go in a positive, uplifting way to help others. And so, when I was around people who might be stuck in the sad, I found that sometimes that brought me down a little. So, one on one with those people. I was great, but in a group setting that was hard for me and that wasn't helpful for me. So, I decided to do the things that made me feel better and I always felt better when I was helping someone else. And so, those are the kinds of things that I did.
Scott DeLuzio: 08:34 I think a lot of the people that I've talked to so far for this podcast, even outside of this podcast, who are dealing with grief or emotional type issues, whether it's PTSD or the loss of a family member or whatever the case may be, it seems like a lot of these people have one thing in common that doing something and being productive and not just busy work productive is what helps them move on from whatever the pain is that they're going through. And not to say that it's going to erase the pain entirely but it is a way for them to help other people going through either a similar situation or just to feel like they're being helpful and being useful.
Scott DeLuzio: 09:33 I want to say going back to being in the military, you volunteer, everybody who's in the military right now, is a volunteer. You don't have a draft anymore. Like Vietnam era folks had the draft. Everyone is a volunteer and I think that the people who do raise their hand and volunteer generally want to be helpful. They want to help their community. The National Guard is community focused where you're serving on the State level or they want to help their country where there might be a conflict overseas and they want to go and serve and protect their country and everything. It seems like for you there's a similar kind of correlation there where you took a tragic issue that you were going through and you wanted to turn that negative into something positive. Whether it was through the Connecticut Trees of Honor Memorial or the Fisher House or other organizations that you've worked with, it seems like you were trying to
Scott DeLuzio: 10:44 not just sit there and wallow in your own misery. You wanted to get out and actually help someone and be productive. And that seemed to be the thing that helped you out more than out of isolation. Like you said in the beginning, you felt like you just wanted to be alone and not be in the spotlight or whatever. So,
Scott DeLuzio: 11:16 through various organizations that you mentioned that you have connected with other Gold Star families and veterans and things like that. And how has that helped you in terms of
Scott DeLuzio: 11:28 either your grieving process or for your own benefit to move on from that sense of isolation where you're just hunkered down and not wanting to get out? How has it helped you to get out with other Gold Star families or veterans or other organizations, other family members, things like that?
Diane DeLuzio: 11:51 Well, a big part of my healing
Diane DeLuzio: 11:54 was to meet and greet and hug some of Steven's friends, some of his battle buddies. I saw there, especially the first meeting, the pain in their eyes and as I started saying before, that's when I realized that it wasn't just a death in our family. Steven's life had touched a lot of people and a lot of people in a positive way. And so, meeting, greeting, talking to them, getting to know them, even becoming friends with some of them that we may not have otherwise have had the opportunity to meet, I realized hearing their stories about Steve, and we told our stories to them about Steve on the family side, even from the business where Steven used to work were stories on his business side and sharing all of those stories, filled me with pride.
Diane DeLuzio: 12:53 I guess that Steven was a lot to a lot of people. He meant a lot to a lot of people. I never served; I was never in the military. I never raised my hand, as you did. It's actually, I believe less than 1% of the population that does. And sometimes I felt uncomfortable when I was called a hero or was thanked for my sacrifice because honestly, I didn't raise my hand. I didn't choose this sacrifice. At this point, it was what it was and we weren't going to get Steven back. I wanted to make his life remembered. I'll never forget. I wanted to make sure that I could speak his name so that other people would never forget either. But I also wanted to make sure that the good that he was doing lived on and so I wanted to do whatever I could do for the veterans or for the community in general, I tried to volunteer and I did. I volunteered as much as I could in order to try to make the world a better place.
Scott DeLuzio: 14:13 So, it seems like when I first got home, there were and this is very similar to what Chris Weir said on a previous episode, after losing his brother, there were news vans on our street outside of our house when I first got home. I literally hadn't even gotten out of the car from the airport. There were already news vans lined up on the street and everything. Whether it's television or radio or newspapers, they had reporters from all over who were there. And I remember my initial gut reaction was like, screw these people. I don't want to talk to these people. That was one of those things that I think was ingrained in me from when I was overseas because on some occasions, some of the reporters who had gone over there and there had been cases where they took a story and blew things out of proportion and maybe didn’t report all of the situation.
Scott DeLuzio: 15:19 But it made for a great story. And so that's how they reported it. And so, we always just felt like if there was a reporter around, we're not going to say anything. We're not going to do anything we are going to ignore them and everything like that. And so, when we first pulled into the driveway and I saw those news vans, my gut reaction is just screw these people. I don't want to talk to these people because I don't know what they're going to say and I don't know how they're going to twist this story. I think I remember back to this time we were all sitting there in the car and trying to decide what are we going to do? Is anyone going to talk to them? Are we going to just go inside and ignore them?
Scott DeLuzio: 15:59 What is it that we're going to do? And I remember that at one point we decided that someone needs to tell Steve’s story. He died and then we're just going to not let anyone know about him or his story. How wrong is that? And so that goes into what you were talking about to other veterans and always wanting to speak about him, about Steven and tell other people about him so that while yes, he has died, his memory can continue to live on. It can continue to affect other people. We set up the Memorial Fund in his name and it provides scholarships to kids and will continue to provide scholarships to kids for many years from now and so while yes, he's passed away, but he continues to touch other people and affect other people's lives going forward throughout the years.
Scott DeLuzio: 17:00 You've done other events where you spoke like Memorial Day type events where you spoke and you got up and did all those types of things. Were those similar to what you were talking about in terms of wanting to get his name out there like that and those were more for Steven more than they were for you to get his name out there then they were for your own personal healing or whatever is that accurate?
Diane DeLuzio: 17:34 That's correct. Just to kind of piggyback on your comment with the day we brought you home from the airport, the other part of the conversation I that I recall is that one of the casualty assistance officers who said that, “this is a story and the story is going to be told, the only question is whether you want to add to the story. So, you want to give your
Diane DeLuzio: 18:03 side of the story or do you just want to let them tell the story.” He did say that there'll be somebody who was in third grade with Steve who they will get to give an interview and that person will give us a soundbite. Do we want that or do we want to give our story? So, while I certainly wasn't able to talk at that point, we decided as a family that we would all go up there. And I think between you and dad, you guys were able to speak and that was the start of getting to say Steven's name and talking about him from people who really knew him. You asked me another part of the question and I forgot what you asked.
Scott DeLuzio: 18:45 No, that was good. That was what I was getting at. It was more for Steve and getting Steven's name out there than it was for your own healing. You know, in the beginning it was still a shock. So, it's understandable that maybe you're not able to necessarily get out there and speak to the reporters but it was important for us as a family to tell his side of the story from our perspective, the people who generally knew him the best versus some kid from third grade who sat next to him and knew that he liked to play baseball. That's not important and kind of fluff stuff. Yes, that's true but we had more depth to make the story just that much better. Get down to the core in the message of who he was out there into the newspapers and on TV news reports and everything like that. That was to me the most important part.
Diane DeLuzio: 20:02 But the other part that you asked me about was the Memorial Day speeches and those kinds of things that I continue to do since then. I don't think of those as necessarily healing except in the way that it makes me feel good that I'm able to
Diane DeLuzio: 20:21 speak to veterans, speak at Memorial Day ceremonies, speak at a scholarship ceremony to a scholarship recipient that we've just given a scholarship to and talk to them about Steve. I don't know if you remember, but early on during the first year after Steve died, I put together a little book because I wanted every scholarship recipient that we gave money to not just know that he got the Steven J DeLuzio scholarship, but also know who Steven J. DeLuzio really was. So, there's pictures of Steven playing Little League and golfing at St. Andrew's [in Scotland] and playing hockey for Glastonbury High School and all that kind of stuff. So, I put those things in the book so that they would know that he wasn't just this SGT Steven DeLuzio but he was a man who had a brother and a mother and a father and fiancé, etc. So, while they're not so much healing for me, but they do actually make me feel good that I'm able to continue to talk about him as Steven or Fifi as we fondly called him.
Scott DeLuzio: 21:19 The nickname he gave himself as a kid. Yeah.
Scott DeLuzio: 21:28 Along the same lines of telling the same story about Steven and getting his message out there and everything, recently we as a family, as a Gold Star family, we had the honor, the privilege of meeting the president, President Trump and his wife at the White House in Washington. I think we decided as a family that this was something that not only was it an honor to meet the president and to be invited to the White House but we were presented with an opportunity to
Scott DeLuzio: 22:13 represent Steven and have his name be included in a ceremony at the White House, which to me, it doesn't really get any bigger of a stage than that. At the same time, the White House kept the event quiet. It wasn't held with a whole lot of publicity either. The press is famous for [criticizing] his Twitter usage. It wasn't tweeted out 18 million times or anything like that. It was, in my opinion, very respectful and very well done. What were your thoughts about accepting this invitation? First off and what were your thoughts about going to the White House in general?
Diane DeLuzio: 23:08 Well, I don't think there was any question in my mind that when we received the invitation that we were absolutely going to go. It was an honor and a privilege to go and I still sometimes pinch myself and think about how we were shaking the president's hand and Mrs. Trump’s as well. It was just an honor. Of course, the little part of me that feels a little guilty because I knew why we were there. It wasn't because of something that I did that got me there. It was something that Steven did. I felt a little guilty and I think a little part of the day, I felt nervous because again, I felt as though I was
Diane DeLuzio: 23:46 getting put in this, situation as a hero. I thought they treated us like we were royalty really. And so, I felt like I wasn't deserving of that, that it was really Steven’s sacrifice. And even yours too, from the standpoint of having served our country where all I did was to raise two patriotic boys. So, I guess maybe that's the end of what I did for it. But again, it was never a question that we would have gone because it was something that I felt was absolutely necessary to do. Also, the honor for Steven, he was recognized by the President of the United States in a ceremony, his name was read, etc. And it was just something that,
Diane DeLuzio: 24:34 I'll never forget.
Scott DeLuzio: 24:35 Oh, no, absolutely. I don't think I'll ever forget that either. It was such an incredible opportunity to go and do that and a great honor to have the president invite us to the White House for that event.
Scott DeLuzio: 24:56 Going back to what you were saying about how you felt almost guilty about being invited to the White House because what did I really do? I feel like it's sort of that
Scott DeLuzio: 25:15 terrible price you have to pay to join that club and it’s
Scott DeLuzio: 25:21 the least that they can do is to treat you with the respect that you deserve for having paid that price. No, you didn't push him into the Army. You didn't tell him to go and you didn't, as a matter of fact, probably didn’t want him to join. You did more of the opposite with the worrying and everything like that. Not to say that you discouraged anyone from joining the military but the fact that from that day forward, you lost your son and now he's not here anymore the way he would have been had the country not asked for his service. The least they can do. I feel that this is what their mindset was by having this type of event.
Scott DeLuzio: 26:11 As far as I know, they've done this every year since President Trump has taken office.
Diane DeLuzio: That is my understanding too. This was the third year.
Scott DeLuzio: Do you have any other words of wisdom or advice or whatever for people who are in your situation? In terms of people who are now having their sons or daughters who are just joining the military and they're going out to basic training and they have that same kind of worry that you had or even Gold Star parents. There are people who probably are still dealing with the emotional struggles and everything like that and maybe they haven't necessarily figured out what they need to do to get through. I hate saying, move on with your life, because that's not what you do. You can't just move on. That's a big part of your life that's missing. But to be able to live a happy life and do that type of thing.
Diane DeLuzio: 27:20 Well, it's really two things. One starts actually even before you hear of a tragedy like this. What I did personally with both your unit and Steven's unit is that I became active in the support groups back home. So, I made friends with members in the Connecticut National Guard and the Vermont National Guard units. Because Steven had actually been on his second deployment, I had been part of a phone tree where they would call me and check on me the first time Steven was deployed to Iraq in 2006. When you guys were deployed in 2010, I became that lead person for the Vermont Group. And I would call every week or I would call every other week. Friday, I would make phone calls to different families and just check in and see if they'd heard from their son as all the people in my unit happened to be men that were deployed.
Diane DeLuzio: 28:12 So I would call and ask about their son. Had they heard from him and there were a couple of cases where they hadn't received letters or phone calls or whatever for a while. So, we looked into it to see if it was just because they didn't have a phone or whatever. We just stayed in contact to let them know that they weren't there alone. With yours, because this was your first deployment with the Connecticut National Guard, your wife and I would go to the meetings and there were pasta suppers where people got together and shared news or whatever. It was just a community thing. You got to know other people. So, there was some camaraderie there. The other thing that helped me and this was actually during deployment and post-deployment that I'll preface it with just a real quick story.
Diane DeLuzio: 29:00 When Steven was at Norwich University in Vermont, which is a military academy, he had limited access to a phone, so he couldn't call home very often. On one of his phone calls, he said that he had just come back from mass at church and he said that he went to mass as often as he could when he was there. And he said to me that while I am a Catholic and I went to church pretty regularly, there were some days that because of schedules or whatever, I just didn't and I missed mass. Steven actually said to me, he said that, “I think you should start going again.” He told me that. He said, “because I really think the church and your faith will come in handy someday.” And so, right now I'm actually getting chills on my arms because he was 100% correct.
Diane DeLuzio: 29:55 At the time we were living in Connecticut, our faith family became Father George and Sister Mary and they became friends of ours. They were from St. Dunstan’s Parish in Glastonbury, Connecticut. They became friends of ours while you guys were deployed. They were very, very helpful to me in being able to comprehend and process all that was happening. Knowing that you were so far away, they were there to greet us and to hug us. Almost immediately when we got the news and we continue to this day, almost nine years later, to still be friends with them and they enhanced my faith in the faith community. It was very important to me and I understand it may not be for everyone. It depends on your own beliefs. But for me, that was a very big part of my healing and the veteran community, family and my faith and the faith community were very, very instrumental in my process of grieving and healing.
Scott DeLuzio: 31:08 That's good. I didn't know some of that stuff actually about Steve telling you that and everything. That's interesting because I know when he was deployed, they were on a small remote base and they didn't really have religious services or anything like that some people might have on a bigger base or whatever. I know from various stories from other people, that he had done some things to try to help with some sort of religious service, whether it was officially having a chaplain there or anything like that or if it was just talking to other people or whatever.
Scott DeLuzio: 31:49 I don't know the details of everything, but I know he was involved with that a little bit too. So, that's awesome. Thank you for sharing your story and your side of everything that happened and your grieving process and those activities and the other things that you've done that were meaningful, helpful, and productive for you. Thanks for sharing all of that and we look forward to maybe hearing a little bit more about this type of stuff in the future as well.
Diane DeLuzio: Thank you.
Scott DeLuzio: 32:29 Thanks for listening to the Drive On Podcast. If you want to check out more episodes or learn more about the show, you can visit our website, driveonpodcast.com. We're on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram at drive on podcast.