Regardless of how their loved ones died, Navy honors Gold Star families

More than two years after her son's death, Gail Jagrosse continues to populate a memorial she created for him in her West Haven apartment.

The memorial features mementos of the childhood of her son, Christopher Michael Colafati, such as a poem he wrote titled "When I Think of my Mother" and a "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" T-shirt, and also markers of the milestones that have come since his death, such as a balloon with the words "Happy Father's Day."

In fact, the memorial has grown so big, she had to move it to a bigger dresser, and it even covers some of the walls.

"People tell me, 'Why do you do this to yourself?' I say, 'You don't understand. This is comforting for me because I know he would love everything,'" Jagrosse said.

The commemoration she's compiled helps honor his life, as do events like the one hosted Thursday by the Naval Submarine Base in Groton honoring the families of U.S. service members killed while serving on active duty, or so-called Gold Star families. Jagrosse, 59, said it was her second year attending.

"Regardless if they were killed in a training accident or operational theater or died from an illness or suicide, we are here for them," said April Tischler, a Navy Gold Star coordinator who helps the families navigate their loss.

Jagrosse, who described her son as a jokester and troublemaker who joined the Navy to keep him in line, said her son died by suicide in January 2017. He loved the Navy and was hoping to make a career out of the service, she said. He left behind a wife and two small sons, in addition to three siblings and other family members and friends.

"Still not reality," Jagrosse said of hearing her son's name among the 21 read aloud by Capt. Todd Moore, commanding officer of the Naval Submarine Base, at Thursday's ceremony. "Heart-wrenching."

The tradition of a gold star denoting a family member who died in combat dates back to World War I, when families hung flags outside their homes. The flags would feature a blue star, signaling a family member was fighting in the war. When a soldier died, the blue star was replaced by a gold one.

Today, Gold Star families are given a gold star pin after their service member dies, "tangible symbols of immeasurable service and sacrifice," Moore said.

j.bergman@theday.com

In memoriam

The following were honored Thursday during the Bells Across America for Fallen Service Members ceremony:

Chief Petty Officer Kory Langan, U.S. Navy

Petty Officer 1st Class Eric Ramakers, U.S. Navy

Petty Officer 1st Class James "Jim" Buck II, U.S. Navy

Seaman Jonathan "Race" Bradley, U.S. Navy

Petty Officer 1st Class Christopher Michael Colafati, U.S. Navy

Maj. Duane W. Dively, U.S. Air Force

Petty Officer 3rd Class Douglas Robert Beichner, U.S. Navy

Petty Officer 3rd Class R-Jay Edward-Joseph Domondon, U.S. Navy

Petty Officer 2nd Class Tanner Mackenzie, U.S. Navy

Chief Petty Officer Christopher Rice, U.S. Navy

Capt. Jason Hammill, U.S. Army

Lt. Andrew Brooks, U.S. Navy

Ahn Chemawansga, Waterford, CT

Sgt. Edwin Rivera, U.S. Army

Petty Officer Brian Miller, U.S. Navy

Sgt. Joshua Deforges, U.S. Marine Corps.

Lance Cpl. Stephen Bixler, U.S. Marine Corps.

Sgt. Frank E. Adamski, U.S. Army

Private Byron Fouty, U.S. Army

Specialist Ember Alt, U.S. Army

Ari Cullers, Waterford, CT

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