Here’s Why Defining ‘Gold Star’ Makes a Difference for Survivors

Here’s Why Defining ‘Gold Star’ Makes a Difference for Survivors
Gold Star family members pose for a photo after hanging a flag during the Gold Star Families Memorial Monument dedication ceremony in Biloxi, Miss., in 2019. (Photo by Kemberly Groue/Air Force)

On average, more than 1,400 U.S. servicemembers on active duty died each year between 1980 and 2022. Each death is a sudden and painful loss for their family members. Survivors of those who succumb to service-connected injury or illness face the same tragic reality.


Often referred to as “an honor no one wants,” the Gold Star symbol took root during World War I, when families hung banners with blue stars representing loved ones in service. The star was changed from blue to gold if the servicemember died while at war, allowing the nation to pay tribute to the sacrifices of these families.



There is no legal definition of “Gold Star” in statute. DoD issues a Gold Star Lapel Button to next of kin of a servicemember who lost his or her life (see DoD Instruction 1348.36 for additional details). Unfortunately, the DoD instruction leaves out many thousands of survivors whose servicemember died outside of combat – in a helicopter crash during a training event, for example – as well as those who lost a servicemember due to an injury or illness sustained while in uniform or from invisible wounds that led to suicide.


MOAA has endorsed efforts led by the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS) urging Congress to pass legislation establishing a definition in statute for “Gold Star” as it relates to families of servicemembers and veterans who have “died while serving or from a service-connected injury or illness.”


A recent letter to congressional leaders on the issue highlights the challenges that have arisen from the lack of a legal, consistent definition, with the result often being the unintentional exclusion of some survivors. More than 50 organizations joined MOAA in support of this letter. 




An inclusive definition of “Gold Star” recognizes the casualties of war that don’t fit neatly into the “hostile engagement” category:

  • The Marine who drowns during a swimming qualification exercise.
  • The sailor serving in Rota, Spain, who dies in a vehicle accident.
  • The retired soldier who passes away from cancer caused by toxic exposure.
  • The airman diagnosed with post-traumatic stress who commits suicide.


Survivors in each of these scenarios face unimaginable difficulties, just like family members whose servicemembers are lost at war.


[MORE FROM MOAA: What It Means When a Star Is Gold]


A statutory definition of “Gold Star” is long overdue. As you connect with lawmakers this summer, urge them to act now to ensure an inclusive definition to avoid creating an unintentional hierarchy of survivors.


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About the Author

Jen Goodale
Jen Goodale

Goodale is MOAA's Director of Government Relations for Military Family and Survivor Policy.