Out of the Shadow

Published 12:56 pm Tuesday, August 2, 2022

By Michelle Love

Photos by Keith McCoy

Monday, Aug.1 marks a very special day across the country and in Helena as it is Gold Star Children’s Day. The day serves as a way to honor and recognize Gold Star Children, which are children who have lost a parent in war.

Eric Fort is a Gold Star Son, and he is the champion voice for Gold Star Children whose efforts made the day possible. Fort’s story began when he lost his father in the Vietnam War. His father, Eric P. Brice, was a navy pilot in Vietnam who was stationed aboard the USS America. On June 4, his plane was hit and went down in the ocean, but not before Brice saved another soldier on the plane.

Brice was posthumously awarded the Purple Heart and the Distinguished Flying Cross for his actions. Unfortunately, Brice’s passing put Fort and his mother in a club nobody hopes to join – The Gold Star Families.

The term Gold Star Families has been around since World War I, when families of soldiers were honored with a Blue Star Flag. The blue star means there is a loved one who is a service member who is deployed overseas. If they were to get killed in action, they would replace the blue star with a gold star. Since then, it’s become a day of recognition for the families.

There are several days dedicated to families, wives, mothers, brothers or sisters of those who were killed in war, but there was nothing dedicated solely to the children. As a Gold Star son, this always bothered Fort.

“Growing up, I grew up in an era where my dad was killed in a war that was quite controversial and unpopular,” he says. “We didn’t talk about it a lot…there was always this silent struggle we dealt with trying to cope with it. For a lot of us, our heart died the day our loved one died.”

Fort coined the term “shadow survivors” for Gold Star Children because they felt they were in the shadows of other gold star survivors who were recognized.

“We felt overlooked, and that brought on a lot of emotions,” he says. “So, I decided, ‘You know what, I’m tired of this. I decided I was going to try and get a Gold Star Children’s Day. So I reached out to some different people and I got a lot of support for it, but a lot of people were like, ‘Hey, good luck.’”

Fort reached out to several people at different levels to try and get things in motion, but hit a wall with every contact. Eventually, he decided to reach out to Alabama Sen. J.T. “Jabo” Waggoner.

Within two weeks, on July 22, 2021, Fort had a proclamation declaring Aug. 1 as Gold Star Children’s Day in the state of Alabama that was signed by Gov. Kay Ivey. Fort says it marked Alabama as the first state in the country to have an official proclamation recognizing Gold Star Children’s Day.

“I cannot thank Sen. Waggoner enough for listening and actually being a servant to the people,” he says.

Since that day, the day has grown to a national proclamation with complete unanimous approval making Aug. 1 the official Gold Star Children’s Day for the U.S.

Fort said Helena City Councilmember Leigh Hulsey reached out to him praising him for his hard work to bring respect and recognition to Gold Star Children. On July 26, 2021, the city of Helena issued a proclamation declaring Gold Star Children’s Day in the city.

“It just started with an email, a hope and a prayer that somebody would listen and thankfully they did,” Fort says.

Fort adds that the whole point is to remind people that children are survivors too, and they should not be overlooked.

“There are some amazing resources for children whose dad or mom have been killed in action really since Desert Storm, I would say, and even more prevalent since 9/11,” he says. “We didn’t have those resources in the Vietnam era. So, there are a lot of things we want, but what we really want, the ultimate goal is for no child to ever go without recognition for the loss of their loved one and the pain they are enduring, and we want them to know about the resources that they can use to ease that pain.”