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9/11 Twenty Years Later: Miami Valley Gold Star families reflect on sons’ service and sacrifice

Days after America’s longest war ended, nearly 20 years after the 9/11 attacks, four Miami Valley Gold Star families reflected on the importance of never forgetting their sons’ service to their country and the ultimate sacrifice each paid.

The conversation with News Center 7′s Molly Koweek in front of a 9/11 exhibit at the National Museum of the U.S. Airforce happened shortly after 13 U.S. service members were killed in the final days of the war in Afghanistan last month.

“The 13 families who are going through what we’re going through, what all of us have gone through, there’s no words to describe it,” Paul Zanowick of Miamisburg said.

Zanowick and his wife, Nanette Zanowick, lost their son Cpl. Paul W. “Rocky” Zanowick II while he was serving in Afghanistan on June 3, 2011.

“It’s the worst thing that could ever happen to a person. Wouldn’t wish it on my enemy. It’s terrible. Your life changes forever,” Zanowick said.

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In fact, Zanowick says Sept. 11, 2001, changed his son’s life.

“We were standing there as a family talking, our son made a decision that he wanted to serve his country,” Zanowick said.

Lars Williams said his son, Staff Sgt. Wesley Ross Williams, had a similar reaction to the attack, asking his father if he could join the U.S. Army when he was 14-years-old.

Staff Sgt. Williams ended up deploying twice, to both Iraq and Afghanistan. While serving in Afghanistan, he stepped on an IED. On Dec. 10, 2012 he died from his injuries.

“With Wes I never, never expected this. Each time he went, you don’t think about it, he’s going to come back, and then they don’t,” Williams said.

Now, filled with empathy, that is the reality these Gold Star families say they know these 13 new families are forced to deal with, after their loved ones died during the Aug. 26. attack near the Kabul airport.

“The first thing we did is we put our flag at half-staff. We didn’t need to be told,” Jim Groves said.

Groves and his wife became Gold Star parents when their son, Chief Warrant Officer Three James E. Groves III died in Afghanistan on March 16, 2013.

Since then, he and his wife, Leslie Groves, have made an effort to connect with other Gold Star families, like Lynn and Cecilia Stiles, who lost their son, Sgt. Jon L. Stiles, in Afghanistan on November 13th, 2008.

These four Miami Valley services members were among the nearly 2,300 U.S. service members killed during the war in Afghanistan, according to the U.S. Dept. of Defense’s latest casualty report. The last U.S. service member left the country on Aug. 30th.

“What a nice optic it is to say the war is over, but here is what I say, the war’s not over, we don’t get to say it’s over,” Zanowick said. “If we had defeated the enemy, and if the enemy was gone, then the war would be over.”

The Taliban now controls Afghanistan.

“Was it worth it? I don’t know. The other question to ask is ‘was your son’s death in vain?’ And I’m going to say no. Our son’s death and none of our sons’ deaths was in vain,” Zanowick said.

Zanowick pointed to the fact after 20 years, the U.S. has not had a terrorist attack anywhere close to 9/11′s scale.

“I can tell you right now, if you ask Jon that question he’d look at you and go, ‘above my pay grade, pal. I do what I do,’” Lynn Stiles said.

All four families said the war’s end does not bring them any comfort.

“Regardless of the outcome, victory or failure, our kids are not here, so it doesn’t matter, really, because they are not here. But we also want everybody to know that our kids gave their lives for this country. And they loved United States of America. Sept. 11 had a lot to do with many of our kids. So they fought. They fought for you and me,” Cecilia Stiles said.

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These Gold Star families say they understand how important it is to keep their sons’ memories alive.

“There are those that believe that people suffer two deaths in their life. First death is when you take their last breath and the second death is the last time your name is spoken. That’s what it’s about,” Groves said.