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Gold Star daughters seek special license plates for families of fallen soldiers

Massachusetts Gold Star plateTOPEKA — Although she was only 9 at the time, Judith Dietz said she’ll always live with the memory of the day Army casualty officers came to her home to tell her family that her father had been killed in Vietnam.

She recalls her mother was plugging in the coffee maker when she saw the staff car arrive. As the officers came to the door, Dietz recalled her mom, who had eight children ages 1-16, screaming, “No, no, no, God no.”

“At that point, all of us kids knew what it was about,” she said. “We all started crying and my two oldest brothers wanted to go get ‘Charlie’ (the Viet Cong), because they were the ones that killed our dad … these memories never leave us.”

That memory — and feelings for other families who suffered the same kind of loss — brought Dietz and fellow Gold Star daughter Antoinette Ortiz-Colon to the Statehouse Tuesday to renew a legislative campaign to create a special  license plate for family members who lost love ones in war.

Their campaign last year bogged down over who would pay the $10,000 cost of designing and distributing the plates. This year, supporters are back with a new bill and a plan to raise the money from veterans’ groups and others.

The Gold Star tradition began shortly after World War I with service banners, usually displayed in an exterior window at the homes of parents of military personnel. The original banners would show a blue star for each child in the service and a gold star for each killed in action.

The tradition was cemented in World War II, when the military grew to more than 16 million personnel and 405,000 were killed, touching almost every community in the nation. 

Sen. Dick Kelsey, R-Goddard, appeared with the women at the news conference vowing to introduce the bill in the Senate and to lead the fund-raising drive, which he said he’s confident will succeed.

“A hundred people at 100 bucks apiece and your done,” said Kelsey, who added that he planned to make a substantial donation himself.

On the House side, the bill will be introduced by Rep. Pete DeGraaf, R-Mulvane, a 1979 Air Force Academy graduate whose wife, Karen, was one of the first women to graduate from the academy in 1980.

Although the couple “thankfully missed Vietnam,” they have friends who did lose family members in the war, DeGraaf said. The license plate is a small way to honor their sacrifices, he said.

Otriz-Colon’s father, Staff Sgt. John Ortiz, served under Dietz’s father, First Sgt. Glenn Nicholson. Ortiz was killed Jan. 17, 1968; Nicholson, May 5 of the same year.

Although their mothers kept in contact through the years, the daughters hadn’t spoken for about 38 years until Ortiz-Colon read a Wichita Eagle article last year about the campaign for Gold Star license plates.

“I called her up and said ‘what can I do? How can I help?” she said.

She said she still feels the loss of her father and that a license plate would be both a comfort to the family and a recognition of his sacrifice for the country.

“Even though it has been 40 years, we still deal with it every day,” she said. As of now, “a medal is what you have to show for what your father did.”

The proposed bill would make Gold Star plates available to immediate family members of military personnel killed in combat zones, including parents, step-parents, spouses, siblings, children and grandparents.

The proposed license plate would carry a gold star, the words “Gold Star Family” and a theater of combat in the background design.