Holidays Always Tough For Gold Star Mom Advocating Nationally For Better, Stronger, More Resilient America
By Barry Smith
While December is a joyous family time for many across the globe, it is completely understandable why Gold Star mother Karen Vaughn would say unequivocally “straight up, the holidays are grueling,” having tragically lost her son in action six years ago on deployment to the Middle East.
U.S. Navy SEAL Aaron Vaughn, special operations chief with SEAL Team VI, was among 30 brave Americans who were shot down aboard their Extortion 17 helicopter during a mission in the Tangi River Valley of Afghanistan. The highly decorated 30-year-old Vaughn, a husband and father of two, was suddenly gone on Aug. 6, 2011 after nine years of service to his country.
“If he was deployed during Christmas, we would just bathe him with presents and gifts and letters and cards and things that made him know he was in our thoughts every minute,” recalls Karen, a Union City, Tenn. native and current resident of Stuart, Fla. “Of course, if he was deployed, he would always find a phone and give us a call. We appreciated and respected what he did, so we just always tried to lighten the atmosphere because we knew it was a lot harder on him being away from home than it was on us.”
Since losing Aaron before the holidays in 2011, Karen and her husband Billy have vaulted onto the national scene as powerful spokespersons for active U.S. military, veterans and the freedoms and prosperity so many Americans have sacrificed their lives to protect. Garnering several trips to Congress and more than one hundred national and local radio interviews, authoring numerous newspaper articles, developing two websites (ForOurSon.us and OfficialKarenVaughn.com) and authoring two books have kept them focused and motivated.
Billy is the author of the 2013 bestselling book, “Betrayed: The Shocking True Story of Extortion 17,” while Karen authored her own book in 2017 titled “World Changer,” which has her traveling the country for speaking engagements urging patriots to stay engaged in American culture and politics.
“The book reviews have been humbling and very powerful,” confides Karen, who was a featured speaker on opening night of the 2016 Republican National Convention. “My mission is to inspire families across America to re-engage in intentionally working to raise ‘world changing’ children; kids who are noble, strong and formidable.
“I am very passionate about it,’ she says, “because I feel like if we keep going down the path that we’re on in America – the way we’re pitted against each other, the way we are allowing the media to pit ourselves against each other, the way we treat each other on social media – then it’s like Aaron died for nothing.”
Her book “World Changer” came about after she had started compiling stories about her son for his children, son Reagan and daughter Chamberlyn, who were babies when he died.
“I knew that as his kids were growing up they would want stories about their father, they would want to know what he was like at different phases of his life,” Vaughn explains. “I also knew there would be emotional moments and I wanted them to be able to pick up stories about their father at those stages and read what he was like, what his integrity was like, what his character was like, those sorts of things.”
Karen says after she compiled many of these stories just for Aaron’s kids, she was asked by a woman in South Florida to talk to a group of young moms and teach them how to raise ‘world changers.’ Karen was asked to share the principals she and her husband had employed in the home as they were raising their children, revealing some of the basics that created the strength and formidable spirit their children have. One thing led to another that resulted in the book being published in May of this year.
“When I shared those stories and ideas in front of this group of moms, they seemed truly moved,” she remembers. “They were not familiar with all the principals I was teaching, primarily about their responsibilities to educate their children on their participation in the civic experience of America, like voting and understanding who their members of congress are and different things like that. Their reaction kind of shocked me and gave me a real wake-up call about the condition in which we’ve found ourselves in this current culture.
“So, that’s when the book turned into what it did,” she adds. “It was almost equally a story of constructive parenting as it was a celebration of a life well lived.”
When Karen now speaks around the U.S., she has five key messages for parents:
1. Love your spouse and put him or her first – The best step up you’ll ever give your kids is to build a strong and loving marriage that they can replicate one day.
2. Be sure to build a strong tribe around your family. Your friends matter. Who you surround yourself with speaks volumes to your children.
3. Never let up on good discipline. We need to be deliberate in making sure our kids understand that discipline is not our choice, but rather our obligation. Discipline is the primary action that stands between a wrecked life and a productive one. Keep in mind that you are raising someone’s future spouse, parent, employee, boss, etc.
4. Teach your children to not only know what they believe, but make sure they know why they believe it. Courage and character can’t be transferred from parents to kids. It must be taught.
5. Always let your children know you plan to let them go. Hold your children loosely. Most of their lives will be spent outside the confines of our home. It’s our job to prepare them to live their own life and live it well.
Karen was introduced to Boot Campaign by founding “Boot Girl’ and board member Dr. Sherri Reuland, and Karen was eager to become involved after learning the organization’s mission and focus on providing life-improving programs to military families nationwide.
“I’m really interested in Boot Campaign’s ReBOOT program because I’ve been working with veterans on legislation for Veterans Affairs reform ever since Aaron died,” explains Vaughn. “Probably within six months I was active in Washington D.C. trying to get legislation to improve VA care for veterans because of the horror stories I started witnessing as I traveled across the country and spoke.
“When I heard about the ReBOOT program I got really excited,” she adds, “because it was the first program I saw where specialists were evaluating every aspect of the veteran, not just trying to randomly treat them with medication, but figuring out exactly what the causes of their symptoms were.”
In addition to ReBOOT, Vaughn says working with Boot Campaign has helped her with a “gigantic passion” of hers to educate America’s youth about patriotism, service and sacrifice, and about believing in something greater than themselves.
“I’ve talked to a lot of schools over the last six years and the response from students is unmatched, I mean completely unmatched,” reports Vaughn. “I just think it’s a critical to put veterans and even gold star children in front of students and let them tell their stories so students can see what that sort of sacrifice looks like.”
Now that it is that time of year again, the Vaughns have figured out a plan to help the family soldier on through the holidays and have something to be positive about.
“It’s so individual for everybody how they cope with a loss and how they handle their particular situation,” confides Karen. “We’ve decided to try to build new traditions so that we’re not paralyzed by the old things. We do keep some of the old things, like we still hang up Aaron’s stocking every year, and his children use his boots as their stockings, so they get set out by the fireplace, too.
“But one thing we’ve decided to do as a family is take a vacation right after Christmas, so that we all go together and have something to look forward to,” she concludes. “That’s been a big deal for us. This way we’re not focused solely on simply getting through Christmas. No matter what anybody says, you just have to get through it, but the vacation afterwards gives us all something that we really do look forward to, and that helps.”
Learn more about Boot Campaign at www.BootCampaign.org.