GOLD STAR: STORY OF AN AMERICAN SOLDIER, AND HIS GOLD STAR MOTHER AND FAMILY
By Rees Lloyd For the Record Gazette
MEMORIES - Spencer T. Karol, a fallen American soldier and Bridget Madison, his American Gold Star Mother.
When Spencer Timothy Karol, born April 13, 1983, the oldest of Bridget Madison's four sons, was growing up, he was a well-liked kid with a big smile and gentle and helpful manner; a "big brother" who watched over his three younger brothers and assumed "man of the house" responsibilities early and easily and without complaint.
Learning values instilled in him early in his life by his famous grandfather, movie and television star Guy Madison, to whom he was very close, Spencer never had troubled teenage years with drugs or alcohol, fights or problems at school. Although he was not interested in sports teams, he did eagerly learn about hunting from his grandfather, a master hunter who made his own hunting bows and arrows.
Possessed of an open friendly smile and a "baby face" that made him appear even younger than his years, no one predicted that he was likely to volunteer for the U.S. Army three days after High School graduation, become part of a U.S. Army Ranger intelligence unit, and be killed in action, after only twenty years of life, fighting for his country and against terrorism in Iraq, a beloved son and brother, a hero in the eyes of his Ranger buddies, who called him "Little Brother" in life and to this day in loving remembrances still being sent to his family four years after his death on October 6, 2003.
"When Spencer died, I was a wreck. I was overwhelmed with grief. I don't know how to express it, what it means to lose your child," says his mother, Bridget Madison., who wears daily in remembrance of her son, the "Gold Star" pin, signifying the death of a son or daughter in wartime, presented to her by the president of the Army Rangers Association, Stephen Crabtree.
"For more than a year, I was so full of grief I could hardly function. I could take care of my kids, and necessities, but, emotionally, it was as if I was in another place. It took me a long, long time even to be able to smile. It took me almost two full years to become myself again. If it wasn't for my kids - my daughter, Simone, Spencer's older sister, and his three younger brothers, Sean, who was then only 13, Skylar, 11, and Sheridan, 9 - I wouldn't have made it," she recalls.
"My comfort, then and now, is the knowledge that Spencer died doing what he believed in with his whole heart. He loved his country, he loved the Army, he loved his buddies in the Rangers, and he believed in what he was doing -- fighting for freedom, helping other people to be as free as we are. I am so proud of him," she explains..
"Those were my last words to him. He called to say he was 'going on a mission.' He would never tell me details. Somehow, I had a feeling this time, a premonition, that he wasn't coming back. My last words to my son were, 'I love you, Spencer. And I am so, so proud of you'," she remembers.
"We were living far outside of Holbrook, Arizona, and the instant I saw that car coming down the ranch road to our house with uniformed men inside, I knew it, 'Spencer has been killed. He's never coming back!,' " Bridget Madison relates.
"It makes no sense, but I wouldn't let them out of the car -- as if that would hold back the news that I knew was coming. Every time one would try to open a car door, I'd push it closed so they couldn't get out, then run around the car to block another one: ' Oh, no, God -- not my Spencer, not my son!' "
"When I finally let them get out, their words didn't really register, I can't remember to this day the words they spoke - but I understood the meaning of what they said: My son, my beloved Spencer, had been killed," she remembers. "All I could say to those officers was to call my mother, tell her I needed her. She must have driven a hundred miles an hour she arrived in Holbrook so fast."
.The small town of Holbrook turned out in great numbers to pay their respects and to honor Spencer, and his family, at his funeral on October 28, 2003, which was held in the largest church in town, the Mormon Church, because of the expected crowd, although the family is Roman Catholic. On Veterans Day, Holbrook still remembers and honors him and two other soldiers from the town who have sacrificed their lives in the war against terrorism
"I am so very grateful for the love and support we received from the people of Holbrook. It seemed like the whole town called to help or came to the funeral. I will always be thankful for the love they showed for Spencer, and us, but after the funeral, I had to move back to California, to Morongo Valley; I just had to be with family," Bridget Madison explains.
She is thankful, too, for the support and love for Spencer that continues to be expressed by his Ranger buddies, who continue to contact the family. "I can't tell you how many stories have been told to me by his buddies of things he did to protect their backs in Iraq," she says.
That soldierly love for Spencer is exemplified by what she calls the "amazing" acts of his unit leader, Sgt. Dominik Kepa, who flew all the way to Phoenix with a three hour drive to Holbrook to meet her, and tell her himself the story of her son's last mission.
"Sgt. Dominik Kepa can't be thanked enough for what he did for my son, and what he has done for me and my family," she says. "After Spencer was killed, Sgt. Kepa hopped a plane in Iraq and flew to Germany. He could have used that leave time to spend with his family. Instead, he spent one night with his wife, then flew to Arizona, then drove to tell me himself what had happened."
Sgt. Kepa informed her, she relates, that the five-man Ranger intelligence unit had gone out in search of information. They spotted what had been an American check point on the side of the road, and slowed down to stop there.
The back tire on Spencer's side of the vehicle triggered an IED, and the massive explosion tore the vehicle apart, hurling Spencer, who was closest to the blast, into the adjacent field.
Sgt. Kepa managed to drag the other wounded Rangers from the wreckage, then searched for and found Spencer in the field. The Rangers obtained another vehicle, and speeded to an Army Medical unit, but Spencer died from his wounds on the way.
"Sgt. Kepa loved Spencer so much that he made that journey just to tell me himself what had happened. I was so touched," Bridget Madison says. "But even more: Nine months later his wife gave birth to a son. They named him Spencer Timothy in honor of my son. I can't express how much it means to me."
How, Bridget Madison was asked, did the gentle teenage boy become so quickly the man who was the professional soldier, and an Army Ranger at that?
"I think it had a lot to do with his close attachment to my Dad, Guy Madison, and the values he learned from him," Bridget Madison explains.
"My Dad joined the Navy in WWII when he was very young, and three days after Spencer graduated from high school, he joined the Army. I went to his graduation ceremonies at Ft. Benning in Georgia. He was so proud. Our country was attacked on 9-11, and Spencer volunteered for Airborne training, then for assignment with the Army Rangers," she said.
"I think the sense of duty, of service to the country, came from my Dad. He wasn't born "Guy Madison, The Movie Star." In fact, he was discovered by Hollywood when he was serving in the U.S. Navy in World War II. The Navy put out a magazine, I think to attract interest in the Navy in the war, and on the back cover, they had a picture of my Dad on board The Star Of India, with his shirt off, all buffed out. They attracted interest, alright: He was so stunningly handsome that I was told they received thousands of letters - from women, asking:'Who is that sailor?' The photo was seen by somebody in Hollywood and they knew they had a potential star," she said.
"'Guy Madison' became a household name as my Dad went on to star in scores of Western movies, and to receive countless awards, including the "Golden Boot Award," the Western equivalent of the Academy Award. His television series "Wild Bill Hickock" was so popular, that it ran continuously for more years than even 'I Love Lucy,'" Bridget Madison relates.
"But my Dad wasn't just acting when he played roles as the iconic Western cowboy exemplifying values Americans used to cherish - rugged individualism, personal virtue, honesty, morality, a willingness to stand against injustice without thought of personal reward, love of country, a willingness to serve and even give your life for others, patriotism.
"The Guy Madison who was my Dad and Spencer's Granddad exemplified those values in his life, and he was a major influence on Spencer's young life," Bridget Madison said.
"I am proud that as my Dad served in World War II , and was willing to give his life for his country, so my son, Spencer, in this generation of our family, served in this war and was willing to, and did, give his life for his country, for freedom, for us," she concludes.
Does Bridget Madison regret that her son followed her father's patriotic example of military service?
"I miss my son Spencer terribly," she says, "but no, I don't regret his decision. I know that my son made a choice, to volunteer for service in the Army, to defend our country, to become a professional soldier. I know that he knew that by his choice he might be killed.
"I know my son lived joyfully and proudly as an Army Ranger. I know that he died doing what he loved, with Army comrades that he loved, in service to a country he loved, and a cause he loved: Defending freedom. Making a difference," Bridget Madison said.
"What I do regret is that there are some Americans, including even some Gold Star Mothers, although very, very few of them, that have used the service, the military lives and the deaths of my son and others, to carry out an ideological agenda. Even creating a spectacle by putting up markers allegedly to honor my son and others who have sacrificed their lives for our country. That demeans and dishonor's my son's life, and his death. Those people and those actions I regret. I think that they should be ashamed," she concluded.
Bridget Madison says she was aided in overcoming her grief by the love of her children, her mother "who I think was the most beautiful woman in the world when she married my Dad and is still gorgeous today," the continuing expressions of love for Spencer from his Army comrades, but most of all by an unusual tribute which she has created to honor Spencer.
"It took about two years for me to get back to being myself, and what happened was that I had an idea: I would get a 'monster' pick-up truck, and design a display of photos and other graphics of Spencer's life as an Army soldier as a tribute to him. That really gave me an ongoing, living connection with him," she said.
The commemorative truck is red, white, and blue, with a "Gold Star" on the hood. It includes professionally done graphics showing a young, smiling Spencer with his Army Ranger buddies, and other visuals telling about him. as a soldier of America. It is huge, colorful, and hard to forget once seen up close.
"I'll never forget it, that's for sure. I saw that monster truck bearing down on me and thought: If that monster hits this little car it'll be flattened.," says S.Sgt. Daniel P. O'Brien, National Guard Recruiter stationed at the Banning Armory.
That almost tragic meeting with of S.Sgt. O'Brien with Bridget Madison resulted in her agreement with his request that she display the tribute truck, and participate in, the Armed Forces Day - Blue Star Family Salute sponsored by the Pass Area Supporting Soldiers ("PASS") and the Guard at the Banning Armory on May 19, 2007, at 9:00 a.m.
She and the tribute truck will be participating also in the 2d Annual Salute To Veterans Parade to be held in Riverside on Saturday, April 21.
She will also have the tribute truck on display at the American Legion California Department Convention in Palm Springs, and will, with other Gold Star Mothers, join as a Distinguished Guest in "An Evening With Major General Patrick Brady, Medal of Honor Recipient," and the Convention's keynote speaker, on Friday, June 22, starting at 6 p.m. at the Palm Springs Convention Center.
Asked why she feels it is important for her to do what she is doing, Bridget Madison answers:
"We Gold Star and Blue Star Mothers, and families, know that we are living in a new military era, with a professional army, in a new kind of war. Our sons and daughters who serve, unlike in other wars, are all volunteers. They have chosen to defend our nation, including by giving their lives if necessary, after our elected representatives in Congress voted overwhelmingly to send them to war.
"I hope that all Americans will remember that those who are serving in our military, including the more than 3,000 who have given their lives, are not statistics, nor political pawns to be defamed in life or death. They are human beings, with families they love and who love them. Our sons and daughters serve with honor, they have sacrificed their lives for us with honor, and so we should honor all of them, and their families, for the families suffer and sacrifice, too.
"Whatever a person's political views may be, including on the war, nothing should be done or said by anyone that puts our sons and daughters in harm's way, demeans or dishonors their service, nor implies in the slightest way that they who are serving, who have served, or who died, have done so in vain." ______________________________________________________________________________________
[Editor's Note from THE RECORD GAZETTE]
AMERICA'S SOLDIERS AND THEIR GOLD STAR FAMILIES:
Do Americans Still Honor Them?
More than 3,000 Americans have given their lives in the War Against Terrorism. In this issue, we report one of those stories, on Army Ranger Spencer T. Karol, and his Gold Star Mother, Bridget Madison.
We have in the past published extensive stories on Banning's own Joshua Palmer, son of Jackie Palmer Kennedy, a Marine Lieutenant who was killed in Iraq on April 8, 2004. We intend to publish more such stories.
But we publish this story on fallen soldier Spencer T. Karol - on what would have been his 24th Birthday - because we think it is representative of what Gold Star families go through when a loved one dies, and because we think it illuminates an important question:
Do we Americans still honor our fallen soldiers, and their families, as once Americans did? Should we?
We Americans will have the opportunity to answer that question concretely on May 19, 2007, when Pass Area Supporting Soldiers (PASS), veterans organizations, and others, including The Record Gazette, sponsor the annual Armed Forces Day-Blue Star Family Salute, at the Banning Armory, starting at 9:00 a.m.
Active duty military personnel and their Blue Star Families - and the Gold Star Families who have lost a loved one in military service - will be honored. Assemblyman Paul Cook (R-65th), former U.S. Marine Colonel, will be the keynote speaker, joined by National Guard personnel and celebrities which will include former Light Heavyweight Champion of Ultimate Fighting Championships and CEO of Punishment Athletics, Tito Ortiz..
Bridget Madison, Gold Star Mother of Spencer T. Karol, and Jackie Palmer Kennedy, Gold Star Mother, and members of the Mothers of Military(MOM), will be among the Gold Star and Blue Star Families participating.
We hope that this story receives wide distribution, and that all who read it will be there, too, on Armed Forces Day, to honor all who serve, all of the fallen, and all of their Blue Star and Gold Star families.
For more information, call the Record Gazette at 849-4586; or S.Sgt. Daniel P. O'Brien, 901-5415, at the Armory.