The Gold Star Tree: A Holiday Memorial to Our Fallen Heroes

Author: Patti Nowaczyk

During the Christmas season, the Hammond, Indiana, Welcome Center showcases its own exhibit of the movie “A Christmas Story.” Windows are filled with animated displays of scenes from the film. And yes, the leg lamp with the fishnet stocking shines brightly in all its glory. The display also includes 35 holiday trees, and there is a drawing to see who will decorate the trees each year.

After our son, Army Staff Sgt. David Nowaczyk, was killed in Afghanistan in 2012, my husband, Drew, wanted to honor our fallen service members at the holidays. We put our name in the drawing and were selected.

Ornament with photo of fallen service member

Choosing an American theme, we placed small American flags in the tree and attached photos of lost military loved ones to gold star ornaments adorned with their names and hometowns. Our whole family pitched in to design and make the stars. Year after year, we’ve been selected to decorate the tree with the names and faces of service members who so selflessly served our nation. The tree was voted first place three years in a row.

The center gives you a seven-foot tree to decorate; sadly it’s not tall enough to display all our heroes. However, our tree project has grown, and we have added as many heroes as possible. Home Depot even donated a nine-foot tree, which the Hammond Center now puts by the front entrance.

We make every effort to put all Indiana and south suburban Illinois heroes on the tree. We have asked other Gold Star families to join us and help decorate, calling our group “Operation Enduring Honor.”

Drew and I occasionally visit the Gold Star Tree during the holidays. We love to look on as other people take photos, stand and salute, say a prayer, dry a few tears and look to find their own loved one pictured on an ornament.

It’s a bittersweet moment as we think of our son and miss him so dearly; but in our small way, we are making sure he and all of our heroes are honored and always remembered.

Feel inspired by Patti and Drew? Please consider adding your loved one to the  Grateful Nation Memorial Hero Wall as we honor all of our service members this holiday season.

From the pen of…
Patti Nowaczyk is the surviving mother of Army Staff Sgt. David Nowaczyk. She is married to her high school sweetheart, Andrew, and the couple has two beautiful children, David and Megan, and five wonderful grandchildren. Patti lives in Indiana where she and Drew are building memorials to our fallen heroes and their families. For more information, visit