Lois Kilgore simply wanted to help honor the family members of her co-workers at the Brainerd Medical Center who are in the military and, one by one, are being deployed overseas to destinations such as Afghanistan, Iraq, Bosnia and Kuwait.
But the licensed practical nurse had no idea that the personalized 29 Blue Star Service Banners she spent many hours of her free time making last June would have such a profound impact on her co-workers and BMC patients alike.
Each time she finished a banner, it was added to the growing line of banners hanging in the windows.
"As they started to go up, I was just proud of how everyone here had a piece of their families represented," said Kilgore, who has worked at BMC for the past 19 years.
Visitors to BMC often make remarks to clinic staff about the banners, which are found hanging in one of the large windows near the new clinic entrance.
They want to know who the soldiers and sailors are whose names are embroidered across each of the 29 banners. Every banner represents a child, spouse or family member of a BMC staff member who was deployed. All branches of the armed forces are represented, except the Coast Guard, said Kilgore.
Many of the younger visitors have never heard of a Blue Star Service Banner and want to know what they represent.
The banners originally were designed in 1917 by a World War I Army captain who had two sons serving during the war. The banners soon became a symbol that a family had a loved one serving in the military and often are displayed in the front windows of homes. A gold star replaced the blue star if that serviceman or woman was killed or died while in service.
In a gesture that has touched many of those who work at the clinic, World War II-era veterans often stop and admire the banners, making sure to properly adjust them or respectfully hang up those banners that fell down.
"You can see how much it means to them," said nurse Carol Nelson. "This has a big impact on patients coming in."
The banners hold special meaning for Nelson as well. Her son's name is embroidered on one of them. Army Sgt. Anthony Nelson left for Afghanistan in September. His mother hopes he'll return home sometime in May. She said she was overwhelmed with emotions when she saw her son's banner for the first time last summer.
"I'm just so very proud of him. To think Lois out of the goodness of her heart would do this for all of us meant so much to me," said Nelson, her eyes brimming with tears.
Nelson said she knew little about Blue Star Service Banners before Kilgore made one for her son. So she went online to learn more and ended up joining Blue Star Mothers of America. She and Tari Jo Avery, whose son, Matthew Avery, also has been deployed to Afghanistan, plan to start a Blue Star Mothers chapter in Brainerd for mothers with children in the military.
Some soldiers and sailors whose names can be found on the banners have returned from active duty while a few have returned and then left again. Patients and other staff members have asked Kilgore to make banners for them, but she said it was such a labor intensive project to make the banners she can't do it anymore. She said she may make more someday but for right now she has stopped.
"It breaks my heart but I had to stop somewhere," said Kilgore, adding that she later discovered there are about a half-dozen employees who have loved ones serving in the military who do not have banners.
Nelson said the banners have helped staff members with loves ones in the military connect and support each other.
"We're one big family," said Nelson. "The day I heard my son was being deployed I had flowers, I had hugs."
Kilgore said she hopes it will never come to this, but she will replace a blue star with a gold star if a soldier or sailor is killed.
"Let's hope they all come home," said Nelson.
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