WILLIAMSPORT — By this time next year, the rising sun will spotlight a saluting soldier, part of a new monument expected to be unveiled at Veterans Memorial Park on Wahoo Drive. The Central Pennsylvania Gold Star Families Memorial Monument is not designated for veterans of any one war or conflict but rather for members of the military who have died in active duty, and their families.
“They call it the club that no one wants to be in,” Constance “Connie” Howard said of the Gold Star Families.
She and her husband, Bart, became members when their 21-year-old son, Abram, died in Afghanistan July 27, 2010.
Abram was a third-generation Marine, enlisting before he had even graduated from Williamsport Area High School.
“His comrades — his brothers, we call them — speak very highly of him and his dedication to the Corps,” Connie said.
A compassionate young man, Abram “played the guitar fluently, was a standout wrestler” in high school and played the standup bass in orchestra, added his dad, Bart.
Bart, who had learned how to play guitar from his mother, taught Abram and his brother, Alex, the same musical talent. Sister Olivia opted to take up the violin.
“We’d sit around the kitchen and have a jam session,” Connie said. “He played all kinds of music. He’d play the electric guitar and jam out with Led Zeppelin, or bluegrass and good old songs.”
A force for good
Abram’s parents impressed upon him the core values that guided his life.
“I always told him how important it was to look out for the underdog,” Connie said. “He was a peacekeeper, I should say.”
Abram, who attained the rank of lance corporal, joined Bravo Co.’s military police detachment. He trained with his unit in Africa and deployed to the Middle East in February 2009. He deployed twice in support of Operation Enduring Freedom.
“He felt strongly we were there (in Afghanistan) for a purpose and to be a force to help the people of that country,” his parents said.
They related one instance where Abram called home on a satellite phone and told them how the Marines would go into the open-air market and purchase different products from the Afghan nationals. He and his colleagues loved the fresh-baked bread.
When the insurgents learned this, they “went in and killed the baker and went to the next market and kidnapped and killed the baker’s son,” Connie said. “They were ruthless.”
Abram and his unit tried to show the children of the area a different way of life, giving them baseballs and bats and teaching them how to play the sport.
That unit numbered 35 when it was deployed. Thirty-four came home.
“Every year on his death date, we meet with his unit, and celebrate his life,” Connie said, explaining that Abram’s unit had been based at North Versailles, near Pittsburgh.
This past July, the Howards met with 27 members of Abram’s unit and their spouses and children at their cabin near Nippenose. They have maintained a relationship with each of the Marines, attending nearly all of their weddings.
“Now they’re having babies and some name their kids Abram, in honor of him,” Connie said.
“He was such a leader, what a Marine should be.”
The Central Pennsylvania Gold Star Families Memorial will bear tribute to Abram and others who have died in the line of duty, as well as families that have had to “endure the loss of their loved ones in support of freedom,” Bart said.
Five local members of the armed forces have died in battle since the Gulf War, Connie said, and “there’s so many on the outskirts of Lycoming County.”
Bart’s grandparents were a Gold Star Family, too.
“My uncle, Samuel C. Howard, was killed in the Battle of Okinawa on May 11, 1945,” he said. “My father, Harold Howard, served during Korea, but not in battle. He wasn’t allowed to because he was his family’s last surviving son.”
Bart saw active duty overseas with his Marine Corps unit but not during a conflict.
Col. Dennis Norman, a retired U.S. Marine, and Ken and Tami Feese join the Howards on the committee to bring the Gold Star Memorial to Williamsport.
“We already have the land; now we’re trying to raise the money,” Connie said, adding that fundraisers are in the planning stages.
The monument itself is from the Hershel Woody Williams Medal of Honor Foundation, of Louisville, Kentucky. The foundation is named for Hershel Williams, a U.S. Marine who fought in the Battle of Iwo Jima during World War II and received the Congressional Medal of Honor in 1945.
Williams’ devotion to those in the armed forces and their families began long before he entered the Corps. According to his foundation’s website, Williams once delivered telegrams informing families of the death of their loved one. That experience “gave him a greater appreciation for life and an understanding of a difference in death in the normal world as expected in life, and those lost serving in the military for their country.”
He also said that “consideration and recognition of the families of those lost in military service was very inadequate.” His foundation continues his commitment to veterans and to Gold Star families.
According to the website, 73 Gold Star Families monuments have been dedicated and 72 more are in progress.
There’s at least one in 49 states, and two have already been dedicated in Pennsylvania.
“The healing that this thing provides for Gold Star Families is amazing,” Ken Feese said.
Each two-sided Gold Star Families Memorial Monument is made of black granite. “One side bears the words: Gold Star Families Memorial Monument, a tribute to Gold Star Families and relatives who sacrificed a loved one for our freedom. The other side tells a story through the four granite panels (such as) homeland, family, patriot and sacrifice,” according to the website.
The scenes on each panel reflect each community’s Gold Star Families and their fallen heroes.
Connie said the committee will be able to select which photos it wants to use. They’re hoping one will be an image representing the Battle of Iwo Jima.
At the center of the tribute is a silhouette representing the heroes who died in battle.
In Williamsport, the monument will be placed so the silhouette will be highlighted by the rising and setting sun, Connie said.
The committee has established a fund to collect $75,000 and, according to Ken Feese, more than $11,000 has already been donated.
Leo’s Pizzeria, 458 William St., will donate $1 to the fund for every cheese pizza sold through Saturday.
“The Howard family is very thankful for all the support given,” Bart said.
Feese, Col. Norman and the Howards traveled to Lovettsville, Virginia, on Sept. 11 to see the unveiling of a Gold Star Memorial and promptly decided Lycoming County would be a great site for such a monument.
“We have a lot of Gold Star Families in this area,” Feese said. “This would be the perfect spot for a Gold Star Memorial.”
“When we went to Virginia, we didn’t know what to expect,” Connie said. “We didn’t know anyone, but by the time we left, we were a family. To be a part of this was amazing.”
‘Meant to be there’
To their great shock and surprise, the Howards met someone there who already knew their name. Alex Nauert spotted the couple and asked them if they knew Abram Howard.
“We’re his parents,” Connie and Bart told him.
Nauert told them, “I was with him. I trained with him in Africa. I know the whole unit.”
“We were meant to be there,” Connie said.
Feese, who lost a friend in Iraq in 2009, said this monument will give Gold Star Families a place to be recognized.
“It’s easy to support Gold Star Families in their darkest hours,” he said. “But this is something that never goes away for them. When normal folk go back to their daily lives, our Gold Star Families are still suffering.”
Bringing a new monument to the veterans park is a doable task, he said.
“We never want to forget,” Feese said.