JOINT BASE SAN ANTONIO FORT SAM HOUSTON, Texas –
“I still hear his voice each day, and I dread the day that I forget what that voice sounds like,” said retired Chief Warrant Officer 5 Candy Martin as her voice shook speaking to a crowd of U.S. Army South Soldiers at the Fort Sam Houston Theatre on Sept. 21, 2023.
Martin became a Gold Star Mother on Oct. 14, 2007, when she lost her son, 1st Lt. Thomas Martin, who tragically died from wounds suffered after insurgents attacked his unit during combat operations in Al Busayifi, Iraq.
A resilient legacy of her son’s service and sacrifice, Martin has dedicated her life to honoring her son and supporting fellow Gold Star Mothers and Families.
Martin spoke of the Gold Star history and how the Families of Soldiers fighting in World War I would display a banner brandishing a star, one for each immediate Family member serving, on a door or in a window of their home. A blue star represented the living, and a gold star signified they died on the battlefield.
According to the Arlington National Cemetery, in 1928, a group of 25 women whose sons sacrificed their lives came together to form the American Gold Star Mothers, Inc., and in 1936, Congress designated the last Sunday in September as Gold Star Mother’s Day, now known as Gold Star Mother’s and Family’s Day.
Martin’s family history of military service predates the Gold Star, with an ancestor from every generation serving the nation since the American Revolution. Her son wanted to continue that family legacy for both intrinsic and extrinsic reasons.
“When he applied to West Point in high school, his boyhood aspiration, he was denied admission, so after high school, he enlisted in the Army,” Martin said. “As an enlisted Soldier, he again applied for West Point and was accepted after three years of enlisted service.”
Martin's son graduated from West Point in 2005 and deployed as a sniper-scout platoon leader with 1st Squadron, 40th Cavalry Regiment, supporting Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2006. This was only one month after his mom returned from her own combat tour to Iraq.
About halfway through his deployment, her son returned home for rest and recuperation leave. Martin and her son had a conversation before she had to take him back to the airport.
“I was telling him all the reasons why I hated for him to go back,” Martin said. “I knew that he was experiencing things that no mother ever wanted their child to go through.”
She said his response was short but powerful: “Mom, it’s what we do.”
“That was the last time I ever saw my son face to face,” Martin said solemnly.
Martin returned to Iraq, and his then-fiancée, 1st Lt. Erika Holowina, was deployed in the same area as a MedEvac pilot. Coincidentally, she was supporting his unit.
In the early morning hours of Oct. 14, 2007, a MedEvac request came in while Holowina was on duty.
“When the nine-line call came across, she knew it was Tom,” Martin said.
Martin’s son had been shot, and despite medical personnel’s best efforts, he was pronounced dead shortly after arriving at the hospital.
Martin remembers the day she received the casualty notification about her son.
“It was an Army South Soldier who came to our door,” Martin said with tears in her eyes. “We were waiting for the casualty assistance team to come, and I looked at my husband and said, ‘The Army has got this. I know they will get him home.’”
Her family had to grieve before they could welcome the Gold Star Mothers and Families community into their lives, but Martin said she encourages others to find something to focus on to surpass the pain.
“I believe that self-contained grief can become self-destructive,” she claimed. “Therefore, for those of you going through tough times and self-contained grief, I encourage you to devote your time to something bigger than yourself.”
Martin has turned her grief into a mission to memorialize her son’s legacy, and in doing so, she has discovered that talking about him helps heal the pain.
“It's hard, but we never get tired of talking about our loved ones,” she said. “You'll learn that the conversations get easier, and they're so healing not only for us as Family members but also for people who knew him.”
Martin has journeyed across the U.S., speaking to news outlets as well as private and public organizations. She has also appeared on TV shows and podcasts, focusing her energy on spreading her son’s story and awareness about Gold Star Mothers and Families.
Family and friends started the 1st Lt. Tom Martin Memorial Foundation with the goal of preserving his memory by supporting the organizations that made him into the leader he was.
With all the positive change she has created from her son’s death, she still fears the world will forget the men and women who have died serving their country. With that fear in mind, she asked a favor of all in attendance at the theater.
“Ask Gold Star Families questions,” Martin said with hope. “All you have to do is walk up, indicate toward the Gold Star on their lapel and say, ‘Tell me the story behind your star.’ We talk about our kids, but we don't dwell on their death. We dwell on how they lived and what they did to make the world a better place.”