Jim Crigler met his first Gold Star family in May 1972 when he escorted the remains of their son home from the Vietnam War. He knows all too well what it means for a soldier to make the ultimate sacrifice for their country.
But a lot of Americans don't even know what a Gold Star family is.
That's why 45 years after surviving Vietnam, the former helicopter pilot has embarked on the Mississippi Gold Star Paddle: a 2,300 mile, solo canoe trip down the Mississippi. He started at Lake Itasca on Earth Day and plans to finish up in New Orleans in late August, where he'll be welcomed by several families that've been following his journey.
Crigler stops at cities along the way to give presentations and meet with veterans and families who have lost a loved one in service. He thanks the families and presents them with a symbolic gold coin that's a perfect replica of the military's Gold Star pin. He's passed out over 250 so far.
"It’s my hope that every time they see that coin or feel it, they remember that there are millions of Americans that appreciate and honor their sacrifice," Crigler told GoMN. "With the Vietnam veterans, nine times out of 10 I'm the only one who’s ever thanked them. That’s the wrong I aim to right."
He's also raising money for American Huey 369, a nonprofit "flying museum" that restores Vietnam-era Huey helicopters and travels the country giving rides to veterans and their families.
Crigler explained that during the war, the sound of the Huey meant that help was on the way. So getting to ride in one again can be really cathartic for some vets.
And he's the author of Mission of Honor, a book based on letters Crigler wrote to his mother during the Vietnam War.
Q & A
GoMN talked to Crigler while he was taking a break from the water (though he often gives interviews while paddling). He got off the river in Missouri on Memorial Day after a tugboat captain pleaded with him that the water level was too dangerous.
He'll drive down there and pick up where he left off on Aug. 13.
Why paddle for your cause? I wanted to talk to the heart of America. What better way than by paddling down the main artery of our country? And what better way to grab attention than by having a 67-year-old guy doing it?
I’ve always felt like I’ve got somebody guiding me, and it’s almost as if I was supposed to do this in my life before my life is complete. As if I lived my life to do this.
What's the physical toll like? Imagine sitting in a rowing machine for 8-9 hours a day. About every hour I eat something, drink some water, slather on some SPF 50. Once I hit 65 miles, that’s a good day and I look for somewhere to stop.
Do you carry any unique supplies? A pair of medals from a priest that blessed my trip, and a rosary that I carried in Vietnam. And two cellphones, in case one doesn’t work.
How do you pass the time out there all alone? Well you have to concentrate and pay attention, because the river is dangerous. But I pray a lot to myself, speak to my maker. I've probably sang the National Anthem 400 times.
I want to be prepared to give a presentation wherever I stop, or give an interview. So I practice what I want to talk to people about. I want say the right thing, especially if I’m meeting a Gold Star family.
Standout moment of your trip? How emotional the Vietnam Gold Star families are. No one’s thanked them really, because when the war was going on it was very controversial. Most families buried their loved ones and just didn’t talk about it anymore.
When I hand them that coin, and they look at me and their eyes well up with tears, it is very difficult, emotionally, to be there. But I owe it, we owe it to them. They gave the ultimate sacrifice for their country.
What can people do to honor Gold Star families? Find one in your community, get a 49-cent stamp, an envelope and a piece of paper, and write them a thank you note for the sacrifice they’ve made to our country. It requires so little effort but means so much to these families.
What's next? My job isn’t done once I finish paddling. I want to give back. This is a great country and I’ve been able to build a wonderful life. I’ve had a lot of success and climbed that big staircase, but I want to do more for people.
I'm also asking people to contact our leadership in Washington DC to move Gold Star Family's Day to the Sunday before Memorial Day, because people don't even know it exists right now. That way we can start getting recognition for these people.