PARRIS ISLAND, South Carolina --
It is a clear, sunny morning as families and friends watch in admiration and respect as their loved ones march across the Peatross Parade Deck for the final time. Excitement and anticipation fills the air as family members strain to catch a glimpse of their new Marine marching in formation. One particular family watches calmly in the stands, gold lapel pins glinting on their collars in the bright light of the day. Their hearts swell with pride as they focus their eyes on their son’s platoon marching to the beat of the drum.
This is a familiar experience for the family: Marines marching across the parade deck, relinquishing their guidons to drill instructors, and waiting for the final, long-awaited dismissal from Parris Island, South Carolina. Once the dismissal is given, families rush out to embrace their new Marine.
After navigating through throngs of people, Mark and Karen Zook, bearers of the gold lapel pins and parents of Pvt. Joshua D. Zook, reach their son with hugs and congratulatory words. As of this graduation on Oct. 14, 2016, it had been 13 weeks since they had seen Joshua; and they were happy to hear that the support they offered him during basic training had made a difference.
“The letters from my family—the encouragement they wrote—kept me going,” said Joshua. “I was so happy to finally see them again, I just wanted to step out of formation and hug them.”
Though stepping out of formation in the middle of graduation was definitely not an option, Mark and Karen Zook understood his appreciation on such an important day and were well aware of what it meant for Joshua to take this next step in service to country. Their eldest son, Cpl. Ian T. Zook, had also earned the title Marine and had made the ultimate sacrifice during his 2004 tour in Iraq’s Anbar Province.
According to the National Gold Star Family Registry, the Department of Defense (DoD) distributes a Gold Star Lapel Button, also referred to as the Gold Star lapel, to members of the immediate family of a fallen service member. The pin is provided in adherence to strict DoD guidelines for service members who have lost their lives in a conflict or in support of certain military operations. It is a visible representation of the price the service member and his or her family paid in service to country.
In honor of Ian, it was the same pin that Mark and Karen wore at Joshua’s graduation.
“It’s a club no one wants to join,” said Karen. “We wouldn’t really be a part of this if Ian hadn’t died nor would we be aware of [the program] had someone not educated us. Locally, there are a lot of opportunities for Gold Star [families] to be a voice.”
Karen and Mark participate in many events that bring awareness to the program, such as Veterans Associations and Wreaths for America. Their work in these programs may have assisted in Joshua’s decision to become a Marine.
“Our children have always attended Veteran’s and Memorial Day events,” said Mrs. Zook. “We participate in a lot of patriotic functions, anything related to the military or our country. [Joshua’s] desire to serve could be a culmination of all that he has witnessed firsthand since moving to this nation. Ultimately, I believe it all stems from Ian’s service and later death.”
Through their Gold Star standing, the Zooks have met many veterans and other families who have also lost loved ones overseas. This network has helped Mark and Karen to develop bonds with people they may not have met otherwise.
“Our friend group has changed since Ian’s death,” continued Karen. “It went from acquaintances at work to veterans and other Gold Star families; just people who are really patriotic.”
It is Ian’s legacy and his parents’ support for and dedication to the military that they believe inspired Joshua to earn the title himself.
“Ian would have been very proud of him,” said Karen. “Ian was kind of a quiet guy. He would often take aside the younger men and teach them things quietly. In Ian’s fashion, in his quiet demeanor, I think he would have been very proud of Josh and given him a big hug [after graduation].”
Although it was difficult for Mark and Karen to give another one of their children to the Marine Corps, they believe it would be beneficial for Joshua to accept the challenge and, thus, support him whole heartedly.
“I am very proud that he has chosen the Marine Corps and is following family tradition,” added Mark. “Watching Joshua march across the parade deck brought back memories. We were very proud to see him become a Marine, working on a new chapter in his life. We could already see the changes that the Marine Corps has made in him.”