‘Grief has a really sneaky way of blindsiding you,’ says mom of fallen soldier

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(Photo: Frank Buoniconti 1)More than 6,800 U.S. troops have died in combat since the 9/11 terrorist attacks. But not Silvia Buoniconti’s son, Frank Buoniconti, a chief warrant officer in the Army.

Though her son, Army Chief Warrant Officer Frank Buoniconti, saw combat in his several tours of Iraq and Afghanistan, he lost his life stateside. He was flying a helicopter on Dec. 12, 2011, during a nighttime exercise at Washington state’s Joint Base Lewis-McChord when another chopper collided with his.

Frank Buoniconti died with three other aviators that day.

Silvia Buoniconti remembers receiving the news in the middle of the night, at exactly 3:57 a.m. She and her husband awoke when they heard the sound of the garage door at their Colorado Springs home opening. When they went to see what was going on, their other son was there to share the news that no parents want to hear.

With the loss of her son, Buoniconti became a Gold Star mom. The organization -- Gold Star Mothers -- traces its roots to the World War I era, uniting mothers whose sons are killed in military service, represented by a white banner with a red border and a gold star. This weekend dozens of families from around Colorado will gather in Steamboat Springs to “freely express their grief, pride, joys, and sorrows” in the annual Gold Star Parents weekend.

“We all share our experiences and how we were trying to get through this difficult time and try to help each other,” says Buoniconti, who is president of the Gold Star Mothers Pikes Peak Chapter in Colorado Springs.

Gold Star parents often remember their lost loved ones by hanging gold star banners at home. Some display bumper stickers. Buoniconti wears a gold star pin. She says some people admire the pin, but, she notes, don’t know what it signifies though the country has been involved in two major wars for more than a decade. When people ask, sometimes she finds it difficult to talk about.

(Photo: Frank Buoniconti 2)“Just like every Gold Star Mother, if you have a good day, you gently explain what it means and why you’re wearing it,” she says. “If you’re having a bad day, you could simply say, ‘I lost my child,’ and leave it at that.”

Her son, a decorated soldier who died at the age of 36, left behind a family of his own -- a wife who was his high school sweetheart and three children.

Buoniconti celebrates her son’s memory in a number of ways, including knitting hats and scarves.

“I wrap them up and then I bring it either to the homeless shelter or to a homeless clinic downtown and have them distribute them to the people that they think most need it as a Christmas present in his honor,” Buoniconti says.

She adds that on holidays and anniversaries she expects to be most sad about losing her son. Yet, that’s not always true.

“Grief has a really sneaky way of blindsiding you when you least expect it,” she says.

She can become overwhelmed suddenly during a typical day, like on a trip to the grocery store when she noticed the Italian cream soda that her son always liked.

“All I could do was run out of the store at a fast pace without actually breaking into a run with tears running down my face,” she says.

Buoniconti comes from a military family. Her father stormed a beach in Normandy, France, during World War II -- and lived. Her husband and her living son both served in the military, and experienced war, as well.

Buoniconti says after the news of her son’s death, she had to fight the Army for answers -- the paperwork that explained exactly how her son died. It’s a common story for military parents and spouses (see, for example, Colorado Matters’ story recent about the lingering questions surrounding the death of Colorado bandleader and Army Maj. Glenn Miller during World War II).

(Photo: Frank Buoniconti 3)Gold Star Mothers, Buoniconti adds, are not just the mothers of children who died in combat or training for combat. Many, she says, lost their sons or daughters to suicide after they returned home with post-traumatic stress or brain injuries sustained from their experiences in battle.

“Those are invisible wounds that you cannot see,” she says.

Buoniconti fought to change the policy around Colorado's license plate that remembers fallen servicemembers. Prior to her getting involved, to get the plate a person must have been immediately related to a servicemember who died in the line of duty while in a combat zone.

Buoniconti tracked down Gov. John Hickenlooper at an event and personally handed him a letter, asking him to read it when he had a chance. The letter said that servicemembers like her son who died training should also be eligible for the plate. The governor called Buoniconti the next morning and said he agreed. Changes to the law were approved by the Assembly and signed by the governor earlier this year.

In 2015, the new license plates will be available.

“A whole group of us moms and wives will be at the DMV on Jan. 2, as soon as they open, to request our license plates,” Buoniconti says.