Do you remember the last time you received a gold star for a job well done? Or for a good report from the dentist? Or for winning a race? Those were good times and good days that probably bring back good memories.
Most people have only good associations to a gold star; that is, unless you received a Gold Star pin from the Department of Defense after the death of your loved one who was killed while serving in the military. A Gold Star pin is a symbol of sacrifice and honors survivors of our country’s fallen. The two pins presented to the next of kin are the Gold Star pin (with the purple background) given to honor troops who fell in battle and the Next of Kin pin (all gold toned) given to honor troops who died of causes other than combat.
I became a Gold Star Mother on May 30, 2004 when my only child, my son, 1Lt Kenneth Ballard was killed in action in Najaf, Iraq. He had been in Iraq for 384 days.
I raised my son on my own, and watching Ken go out into the world as a member of the U.S. Army filled my heart as only a mother would know. Sometimes life doesn’t turn out the way we planned. It is not natural for a parent to bury their child; but, sadly, that is what happens too often during a time of war. Did you know that there is no name for a parent who has lost a child, no word in any language? It’s just too sad!
1Lt Kenneth Michael Ballard was a highly decorated Army soldier, honored with three Bronze Stars, two with Valor and, of course, the Purple Heart. Ken loved being a Tank Commander with the Crusaders and Iron Dukes of 1st Armored Division, and he loved serving his country. He was a fourth generation Army officer, following in the footsteps of his Aunt Cathy, an Army Nurse, his Grandfather Russ, an Army Engineer, and his two great-grandfathers Roderick and Richard, in the Signal Corps.
Ken joined the Army in October 1995. He was sworn in by his aunt, LTC (Ret) Cathy Patton. He attended basic training at Ft. Knox, KY and became a loader on an M1-A1 Abrams tank. His first PCS base was Friedberg, Germany where he was a member of Alpha Company, 2nd Battalion, 37th Regiment, 1st Armored Division. In early 1996, he was sent to Brcko, Bosnia for several months. Then it was back to Germany and then to Macedonia for UN Peacekeeping duties.
While Ken was in Europe, he loved to travel extensively, visiting France, Austria, Spain, Greece and all over Germany. During this time, he pursued and received the Gold to Green Army ROTC Scholarship. He attended Middle Tennessee State University in Murfreesboro, TN and was a member of Sigma Phi Epsilon fraternity.
Ken received his jump wings in the summer of 2000 and was commissioned as a 2nd Lt on May 10, 2002. His Aunt Cathy swore him in again that day, assisted by his maternal grandfather, LTC (Ret) Russ Meredith. Ken graduated from MTSU the next day on May 11, 2002, with a Bachelor’s of Science and a major in International Relations and minors in History and Economics.
After graduation, he completed some advanced training for the Army at Ft. Lewis and Ft. Hood. He completed Officer's Advanced Basic training at Ft. Knox in February 2003. His first assignment as an Armor officer was back to 2nd Battalion, 37th Regiment, 1st Armored Division. Upon arrival in Germany, his unit prepared for deployment to Iraq. They left for Kuwait and when the tanks were offloaded and prepared for battle, the march to Baghdad began at the end of May 2003.
Ken was assigned his own platoon, 2nd Platoon, part of the Crusaders of Charlie Company in the summer of 2003. He felt a tremendous responsibility in keeping his guys safe from harm. Life was tough in Iraq, with sandstorms and the temperature reaching over 135 degrees outside (and 165 degrees in the tanks!), to say nothing of the constant battles they fought. I never complained about how hot it was or that I was having a bad day while Ken was in Iraq. Nothing in my world could have been as tough as it was for the guys and gals over there.
On April 3, 2004, the battalion turned in their weapons and prepared to march out of Baghdad for home the next week. Ken had expected to be back in Germany by the end of April 2004. On April 15, 2004, we were notified that 20,000 soldiers from 1st Armored Division were operationally extended for 120 days. The families of 2/37 were devastated at the thought of having to deal with three more months of deployment. Ken and his men maintained a good attitude, at least to their families. They felt that their mission was not complete and they would be able to leave when it was. Every single day in May they were engaged in battle, often for several hours at a time.
Ken called me on May 27, 2004 for what would be the last time we spoke. We talked for about 40 minutes about what his plans were when he returned home for his month-long post deployment leave. As always, we told each other "I love you" before we hung up. Ken knew how much he was loved and respected, and I knew the same from him. If I had a chance to talk to him today, there would be no words that need be spoken because we always said it all. I just want to hear his voice one more time.
At 8:53 a.m. on May 31, 2004, I received the phone call that would change my life. Ken was killed in Najaf, Iraq at 11:55 p.m. on May 30, 2004. 1Lt Ken Ballard was buried in Section 60 at Arlington National Cemetery with military honors. Ken was always my hero and now he is an American Hero.
After his death, the words used to describe Ken were varied and always positive. I was told he was bright, brash, funny and sometimes irreverent. He was fearless, brave, courageous, respected and he was a brilliant fighter, a soldier’s officer and a true leader. He was a friend, a best friend, a brother, a hero, a person of great character and a person that few people could rival in humor. No foolish games, no secret icing on the cake, Ken was just a pure honest man that loved his friends and family. He was the kind of man anyone would be proud to know. These attributes are all good, but how and when do you get through the grief of losing a child?
In 2012, Vice President Joe Biden spoke to a group of military survivors and told them this:
There will come a day, I promise you, and you parents as well, when the thought of your son or daughter or your husband or wife brings a smile to your lips before it brings a tear to your eye. It will happen.
VP Biden was right. I cannot tell you how long it took for a smile to come first to my lips; there was no moment of awareness, but I can tell you that I have to suppress a giggle when I think of Ken’s adventures in Iraq wearing a Hawaiian shirt over his full body armor and “surfing” on the swords statue at the gates of Baghdad or the memories of our many trips to watch the San Francisco Giants play. After 10 years, there are still tears, but there are more smiles remembering a life well lived.
This generation of America’s Fallen are our little boys and girls who grew up to be strong men and women who believed in America and who volunteered to serve their country. Now they are our stars that twinkle for us at night in the darkest skies. We will forever be grateful and proud of their service, and we will never forget them. We ask the same of you.
About Karen Meredith, U.S. Army, Gold Star Mother
Karen Meredith is the proud Gold Star Mother of U.S. Army 1Lt Ken Ballard who was KIA in Najaf, Iraq on May 30, 2004. She lives and works in Silicon Valley and is an advocate for organizations that support veterans and Gold Star families such as the California Run for the Fallen. She is the President of the Department of Northern California American Gold Star Mothers and is Vice President of the Mountain View Veteran’s Memorial committee. In April 2013, Karen was successful in her campaign to honor her son with the dedication of the Post Office in her hometown. President Obama signed into law HR 6260, “To designate the facility of the United States Postal Service located at 211 Hope Street in Mountain View, California, as the ‘Lieutenant Kenneth M. Ballard Memorial Post Office.’” You can read more about Ken at his website: Click Here