The U.S. House of Representatives passed a resolution late last month to establish a Congressional Gold Star Family Fellowship Program for relatives of service members who died in service to the U.S. The year-long, paid fellowship program will allow Gold Star family members to work in a member of Congress’ district or Capitol Hill office.
While programs exist like the Wounded Warrior Program, a two-year fellowship designed to bring more veterans to Capitol Hill, Gold Star wife Jane Horton said she worked with Rep. Trent Kelly, R-Miss., to make the Gold Star Family Fellowship Program a reality because no program was established for them.
“They already have a program in place for wounded warriors, for service members, but there’s never been anything for my community for us to be able to serve or give back,” Horton told Military Times.
Horton, whose husband Spc. Christopher Horton, 26, was killed in Afghanistan in 2011, first met Kelly in December 2018 at the Army-Navy game. The vision for the program was birthed weeks later when Horton and Kelly met in January 2019 to brainstorm Gold Star family policy ideas.
Kelly, who has served with the Mississippi National Guard for more than 30 years and is currently a brigadier general, took swift action and introduced the resolution into the House in February.
The measure, known as the The Sergeant First Class Sean Cooley and Specialist Christopher Horton Congressional Gold Star Family Fellowship Program Act, was named after Horton’s late husband and after Sgt. 1st Class Sean Cooley, 35, a member of the Mississippi National Guard who served with Kelly and died in Iraq in 2005.
“I think one thing that’s really been left out again, after all these years of war, is that a lot of families want to serve in their loved ones’ place and continue to carry on the torch after their loved one’s been killed,” Horton said.
She also highlighted how less than 18 percent of members of the 116th Congress are veterans, and stressed the significance of having the “living legacies” of fallen service members work in Congressional offices.
“A small piece of that too is realizing the cost of freedom, and that people actually do die when we send them to war,” Horton said.
Although Kelly expects members of the program will pursue their interests while working in the office, Kelly said he is keeping an eye out for someone interested in working on policies that influence Gold Star families.
“For me, I would want somebody up here working on policy that helps improve the lives of other Gold Star families, where they take their experiences and things that they’ve not been allowed to do, or that they felt like they were neglected in, and allow them to turn that into policy decisions,” Kelly, who serves on the House Armed Services Committee, told Military Times.
Once the program is completed, participants can either leverage their experience into a full-time job in Washington, D.C., or return to their previous profession with new experience and contacts.
Ultimately, Kelly wants members of the program to push for positive changes for Gold Star families.
“I hope that they will influence and make the lives better of those Gold Star survivors who follow them,” Kelly said. “That’s my goal.”
Kelly’s office said that the House Chief Administration Officer will accept requests from offices interested in having a Gold Star fellow in their office, and will subsequently hash out logistics regarding guidelines for how much the fellows will be paid, and how many there will be altogether.
Those eligible — either spouses, children, or siblings of a service member who was killed while in the line of duty — will submit applications to the CAO before undergoing interviews with various offices interested in having a Gold Star fellow.
The CAO is expected to release specific guidelines in a few weeks, Kelly’s office said.
Kelly said he meets with Gold Star groups and families every year in preparation for the annual National Defense Authorization Act, and vowed to continue fighting on behalf of those who lost loved ones in service to this country.
“I don’t know specifically what we’ll do, but we’ll get a working group together and try to figure out what we can do to better help our Gold Star families,” Kelly said.