Survivor’s Day at the Races honors 700 Gold Star Family members at Churchill Downs

  • Published
  • By Dale Greer
  • 123rd Airlift Wing Public Affairs
More than 700 Gold Star Family members who’ve lost loved ones in military service to the United States gathered at Churchill Downs Racetrack here Nov. 5 as part of Survivor’s Day at the Races.

The 13th-annual event, sponsored by Humana Military and staged with assistance from the Kentucky National Guard, honors their sacrifice and pays tribute to fallen heroes from every branch of service, said Mark Grant, program manager for the U.S. Army’s Survivor Outreach Services.

Activities included live music, a catered lunch on Millionaire’s Row, face painting for children and a thoroughbred horse race named in honor of survivors.

Amy Dozier, whose husband was killed during military service in Iraq, said events like Survivor’s Day at the Races are an important part of healing.

“As a Gold Star wife myself, this is just a beautiful thing,” said Dozier, outreach and education specialist for the Woody Williams Foundation, a survivors support organization named for a World War II Medal of Honor recipient. “One of the things we talk about is making memories. We are here to talk about our loved ones, to remember our loved ones, to have fellowship and fun.

“I've got a daughter who was one year old when my husband died, and I think about how special events like this are, because they’re a way to make memories with those who aren't here. So we're kind of reframing it for these families, especially those with the young kids. They miss their dad, they miss their mom, their big brother. This is a way of giving them a chance to make memories with their person. And it's lifelong — these are core memories for these families. I know that firsthand. It has gotten me through lots of really, really hard and dark times in my own grief journey.”

The event’s keynote speaker, Chad Graham, expressed his deep appreciation to audience members for their service to the nation.

“The sacrifice that you have made — sacrificing one of your own for our freedom, in many cases for so many people they didn't know — that is why we are able to have the liberties and freedoms that we have in this country,” said Graham, president and CEO of the Woody Williams Foundation.

“We carry with us their stories, and we are so grateful that you have shared that with us.”

U.S. Army Maj. Gen. Haldane Lamberton, adjutant general of the Kentucky National Guard, noted that many survivors return to the event every year because it provides a way to celebrate the memory of their loved ones with others who have experienced the same sense of loss.

“There is not a solemn event,” he said. “It is much more a celebration of life. Many of these family members have formed a bond and a close relationship with others who have had a similar experience or circumstance to their own.”

Melanie Buehler, vice president of customer services at Humana Military, agreed.

“This event is really about fellowship,” Buehler said. “A lot of healing comes from fellowship, and to be able to support these families is just an incredible opportunity for us. We’re honored to be here and so thankful for everything these families have done for our country.”

Survivor’s Day at the Races is the nation’s largest annual event for Gold Star Family members, according to Grant, who retired from the Kentucky Air National Guard as a chief master sergeant after more than 30 years of service. This year’s gathering drew participants from 18 states.