A day of honor for 631 Gold Star families
The name of Sgt. Kevin A. Gilbertson, who was killed in action in Iraq, is now engraved on the First Infantry Division Monument in Washington, D.C. His mother Keeley Frank and stepfather Department of Kansas Commander Randy Frank attended the unveiling ceremony Sunday, May 26.

A day of honor for 631 Gold Star families

The names of 631 fallen soldiers of the U.S. Army’s 1st Infantry Division from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are now engraved on bronze plaques and memorialized forever on the First Infantry Division Monument in Washington, D.C. One of those names is Sgt. Kevin A. Gilbertson, son of Keeley Frank and stepson of American Legion Department of Kansas Commander Randy Frank. Keeley and Randy attended a ceremony at the First Infantry Division Monument on May 26 for the unveiling of the 631 names, and a rededication to the 27 names from Desert Storm.

“One of the greatest fears of a Gold Star Family is that your soldier is forgotten,” Frank said through tears. “And now (Gilbertson) will be remembered forever.  (The monument is a place) where the world can see him. His voice will be heard.”

Less than three months shy of his 24th birthday, Gilbertson was shot by insurgents on Aug. 29, 2007, in Ramadi, Iraq. He died from his wounds two days later.

“I’m really proud of my son,” Keeley said, “always have been. I told him that every time he called me on the phone. It was his decision to go into service. He asked me if it was OK. I couldn’t say no and I couldn’t say yes. I said if you want to go into the service, I will be there for you. I loved him very much. And still do. I’m happy that his name is on there.”

Gilbertson and his good friend Sgt. Edward L. Brooks were together on the same mission in Iraq that cost their lives. And now their names are inscribed next to each other on the First Infantry Division Monument.

“It’s great that Kevin and Brooks have stayed together,” said Keeley, who feels the presence of her son and Brooks from two cardinal birds that often fly together outside her home in Arkansas City, Kan. She and Frank heard a cardinal singing during the ceremony.   

‘Wherever we show up, there’s a cardinal nearby,” Frank said.

The ceremony was attended by 1st Infantry Division Gold Star families, soldiers from the 1st Infantry Division at Fort Riley, Kan., Sen. Roger Marshall, R-Kan., Maj. Gen. John V. Meyer III, commanding general of the 1st Infantry Division, and other dignitaries. Meyer wears bracelets with the names of the 1st Infantry Division soldiers he has lost under his command, one being Gilbertson.  

In his remarks, Meyer shared that today’s military men and women volunteer to serve something bigger than themselves. “But nobody really articulates what that something is. That something that these young men and women volunteered to serve are the ideals of our country, contained in the Constitution of the United States. It’s a framework of laws that sets our nation apart to give us all hope that tomorrow will be better than today. But that comes at a cost. And the cost is around us… the 13,578 names. Those soldiers sacrificed, they defended those values, they defended the ideals of our country. We honor your sacrifice, and we stand in remembrance.

“No mission too difficult. No sacrifice too great. Duty first.”

The First Infantry Division Monument was erected by the Society of the First Division to honor soldiers of World War I and dedicated by President Calvin Coolidge nearly 100 years ago on Oct. 4, 1924. The monument, which sits west of the White House, features 13,578 names of 1st Infantry Division soldiers from World War I to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan who have made the ultimate sacrifice. The number of names by wars are as follows:

World War I: 5,516

World War II: 4,325

Vietnam War: 3,079

Desert Storm: 27 (includes one female soldier and one contract civilian)

Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation New Dawn (Iraq): 439

Operation Enduring Freedom (Afghanistan): 192

Sen. Marshall has been instrumental in getting the 631 names added to the First Infantry Division Monument, a more than five-year undertaking.

“As a physician, I know how important closure is,” said Marshall, an Army Reserve veteran who has a long family history of military service, including a son who is serving as a private in the Army. “I think this gives some closure to the families because some of these kids didn’t know their mom or dad who died. This fills in that missing chapter … who was my mom, who was my dad, who am I? It is important that they know their loved one, their mom or dad, did not die in vain. That they died to keep us free, to keep us safe, to keep us secure. Their names are inscribed forever.”

Micah Lister was 13 weeks old when his father, Spc. Josph Lister, was killed in action on Nov. 30, 2003, in Ramadi, Iraq. He was only 10 weeks into his deployment.

“He believed in protecting our country,” said Sierra Herring, Lister’s wife and Micah’s mother who was 21 when soldier’s came to her front door to share the news of her husband. She described Lister as the life of the party, generous and one who could put a smile on your face no matter the circumstance. “He trusted his team, and he believed in his team.”

Herring said that she, Micah, and other family members attend every possible memorial service for the fallen “to represent every fallen soldier who doesn’t have a family there to be their voice. To say something. To write their name down and look them up. Because after 20 years when a war is done and gone, sometimes us as families feel like we’re forgotten. And that the world doesn’t remember what our family paid for us to be here and to be free. So the monument in adding Specialist Josph’s name, adding fellow Gold Star families and their soldier’s name, means that their legacy will live on. People will see his name and find out who he is. That means that you have guaranteed that Josph will live forever.”

Prior to the unveiling ceremony, the American Legion Department of Washington hosted a breakfast at the Legion’s Washington, D.C., office for the 1st Infantry Division Gold Star families of Spc. Josph Lister, Staff Sgt. Zac Hargrove, Pvt. First Class William Johnson and Sgt. Kevin A. Gilbertson. Sen. Marshall attended, along with District of Columbia Department Commander Detashia Coleman, National Vice Commander Bill Roy and Department of Maryland 5th District Commander Melvin Graves.

“Those that have given the ultimate sacrifice, they need to be supported, loved and remembered on this day,” said Coleman, who retired after 20 years from the U.S. Navy as a hospital corpsman and respiratory therapist, and deployed to Iraq in 2003 and Afghanistan in 2009. “So remembering their families and remembering their names, it’s an honor.”

In the past, Coleman said she would have shied away from a ceremony like the Gold Star breakfast “because I was so close to the death and life process in war. In the field, I didn’t get to meet the families. Today is one of those times I get to meet the families of those that gave the ultimate sacrifice. And assuring family members that their loved one never died alone, somebody is always there.”

Gilbertson is present in the daily life of Keeley and Frank in the way his legacy lives on. While his name is now inscribed on the First Infantry Division Monument in the nation’s capital, a bridge in Arkansas City is named in his memory and memorials at Fort Riley keep his name at the forefront as a reminder of the cost of freedom. 

Keeley said Gilbertson was always a happy child who had an affinity for remote control cars. She would take him to race cars in a Kmart parking lot in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, where he was raised. She recalled the time she understood his love of remote-control cars when she opened his bedroom door and there was smoke. “I said, ‘Kevin, what are you doing?’ He says, ‘I wanted to see how the wheels burn rubber.’” It's stories like this that Keeley and Frank share when they talk about Gilbertson.

“We talk about Kevin all the time,” said Frank, who met Keeley when his Legion post hosted the Remembering Our Fallen photographic traveling memorial that features Gilbertson. “And talking about him and doing things for him is how we continue his name. It’s a great feeling that it (his name on the First Division Monument) has been accomplished. It’s a tough day. It’s an honorable day. Hopefully people know that today (Memorial Day) is a day to honor, not celebrate.”