Veterans: A Gold Star for Mom Shows a Painful Sacrifice

By Donna Lockwood, GCVF “Mobile Veteran Outreach” Support Specialist and Daughter of a Korean War Combat Veteran

Gold Star Mother's Day

Kathryn Steffen, mother of Marine Gunnery Sgt. Diego Pongo of Simi Valley, received this memorial necklace on Mother’s Day. This necklace contains a Gold Star, topped with a glass purple bead with Diego’s portrait etched inside. Sgt. Pongo died March 8, 2020, in the Makhmur Mountains of southern Iraq. Photo courtesy of Kathryn Steffen.

Mother’s Day is an occasion for us to thank the women who nurtured, loved and raised us. A box of chocolates or a handful of roses serves as a small token; brunch or a fancy dinner create an appropriate moment for nice things to be said. But, as any mother will gladly tell you, the real gift for Mom is knowing that she’s in our thoughts and our heart.

For mothers who’ve lived through the loss of a child through service to our country in war, Mother’s Day is pretty tough. In a way, these moms are heroes as much as their children who were lost in combat.

Our nation recognizes the tremendous sacrifice these moms have made on Gold Star Mother’s Day, Sept. 27. The term “Gold Star” is used to describe a family member whose loved one was killed in combat.

I thought it would be appropriate to share some of the experiences and feelings of two local Gold Star Moms.

Leslie “Lee” Cribben and her son, Stephen

Gold Star Mother's Day
Leslie “Lee” Cribben with her son Stephen Cribben. A Special Forces communications sergeant, Stephen was killed during combat patrol on Nov. 4, 2017, in Logar Province, Afghanistan. Photo courtesy of Leslie Cribben.

Leslie “Lee” Cribben’s son Stephen Cribben was a graduate of Royal High School in Simi Valley. He was killed Nov. 4, 2017 in Afghanistan at the age of 33.

Stephen was still in high school when he decided to enlist. Though he was eighteen, both Stephen and his Army recruiting officer wanted to know if it was OK with Mrs. Cribben. Her first response was “No, it’s not okay.”

However, knowing that Stephen was not likely to do well in college, she eventually supported his decision to be in the military. It turned out the U.S. Army, was exactly what he needed. It gave him a way to ‘learn how to learn’. Stephen flourished. After initially serving as a military police officer, in 2011, Stephen graduated Q course and became a “Green Beret”.

Before his deployments, Stephen always told his mom, “Don’t listen to the news. I will tell you everything you need to know. Everything is fine unless you get a knock on the door.”

On that fall day in 2017, as the family was relaxing in the backyard, an Army CAO and chaplain made that terrible knock. Lee’s three-year old granddaughter came to her side and said, “Are you sad because Stephen died? Have a cookie, it will make you feel better.”

Lee’s response: “I want to be three again.” If only grief were that easy.

Though he died a soldier, Lee often remembers Stephen as a little boy who burned his mouth on cookies hot out of the oven, a boy who would laugh so hard it made him sick.

Gold Star Mother's Day
Army Sgt. 1st Class and Green Beret Stephen Cribben, of Simi Valley, wears a Santa hat sewn by his mother, Leslie “Lee” Cribben. Photo courtesy of Leslie Cribben.

She remembers him as a child, and an adult, who shared his blessings with others. One year Stephen asked his mom to send him some Santa hats. The trick was they had to fit over Kevlar helmets.

Lee got to work measuring and sewing right away. The hats were shipped before Christmas, so this Green Beret warrior could be Santa for a moment, passing out Mom’s homemade cookies to those who had none.

Lee and Stephen talked about how to deal with Americans who disrespect or even hate this country. He reminded her that he was protecting everyone’s right to freedom of speech, but that didn’t mean he had to agree with them.

Lee still wishes people could understand how painful it is for family members of people who were killed defending those rights, when anyone says negative things about the country, or the people who defend it.

Lee describes her grief as coming in waves. Sometimes those waves are like a tsunami. The best way to cope, she says, is not to fight it but “let it flow over you and drag you out.”

Learning to deal with grief, the waves become less strong and farther apart. Now, when she sees the waves coming, she utilizes different resources such as prayer, talking it out, exercising or meditating. These resources move her further inland, so the waves don’t drag her out as far.

I asked Lee if there is anything she wanted people to know. She said many people just don’t know what to say or how to say it.  It usually comes out as “sorry for your loss.” She wants people to know that Stephen is not ‘lost’, he has died. When people ask Lee how many children she has, the answer is “two… one angel on Earth and one angel in heaven to watch over me”.

Lee strongly expressed disappointment that there isn’t a Gold Star Father’s Day. Fathers experience just as much pain, and we can’t leave out step-parents and other family members. She’s been advocating to get the holiday changed to “Gold Star Parent’s and Family Day.”

Kathryn Steffen and her son, Diego Pongo

Gold Star Mother's Day
Kathryn Steffen accompanied her son, Marine Gunnery Sgt. Diego Pongo, to the Marine Corps Ball. Photo courtesy of Kathryn Steffen.

Kathryn Steffen is mother to a highly decorated Marine from Simi Valley. Diego Pongo graduated from Simi Valley High in 2003. Diego wanted to join the U.S. Marine Corps straight out of high school, but his mom talked him into waiting a year.

By nature, Diego was a leader but also a rule bender. She wasn’t sure how he would fare in the military. But, for Diego, good was never good enough.

He graduated third from Marine Special Operations Command and apologized profusely for not being No. 1. In her words “a perfectionist” is “an imperfectionist, a person who finds the imperfections.”

On March 8, Kathryn was at the movies. Though her phone was on ‘silent’, she noticed a call from her father. Heart racing, she knew something was wrong. He told her “the Marines are here.”

She rushed home hoping the news was only that he suffered an injury. Unfortunately, she was wrong. Diego had been killed during a mission against an Islamic State stronghold in north central Iraq. A Marine gunnery sergeant, Pongo died at age 34.

Kathryn remembers Diego as being a fun and out-of-the box thinker who was always pushing the envelope. Even as a young 11- year old, he wore a T-shirt that said, “if you’re not living on the edge, then you’re taking up too much space.” 

His love for his mother was obvious to all when he took her to the Marine Corps Ball in Wilmington, Delaware. In her words, he presented her like the “queen of the ball.”

Kathryn has a locket with Diego’s picture in it. She wore it every time he was deployed and removed it when he returned safely. The last time she wore it, she did not remove it until Diego was laid to rest.

On Mother’s Day, her children made her a new memorial necklace to replace the original locket – a gold star, topped with a glass purple bead with Diego’s portrait etched inside.

Like Lee, Kathryn uses nature as an analogy to deal with her grief. In the beginning, it was like a thunderstorm with lightning and a great downpour. Then would come a time of calm; not numbness or denial, just calm before the next downpour.

With the downpours come tears, cleansing tears. She can bring herself back to calm through journaling, talking to herself and to her son. She believes that the soul maintains integrity. Communication is possible, especially through dreams. She wants people to know that it is okay to talk about him. Yes, it may bring up tough memories, but it is a joy to remember him.

I asked Kathryn if there was anything she wanted people to know. People join the armed forces for several different reasons. Regardless of what you believe about what the soldiers are doing, understand that they are following orders, they deserve honor and respect for doing it, period.

“Respect and honor should always be given to those who put their lives on the line for others. They need support whether it comes in care packages, letters or simply prayers.”

On this Gold Star Mother’s Day, let’s fly a flag in honor of the parents and families who have suffered the ultimate sacrifice of losing a loved one in battle for the sake of our freedom.

Source: VC Star article from September 6, 2020