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More states offer license plates honoring war dead

Gary Merchant's son Christopher was killed while serving with the Vermont National Guard in Ramadi three years ago, when the city was one of the most dangerous places in Iraq.

Now, Merchant has a license plate dominated by a gold star that will help keep his memory alive.

"Sometimes just speaking it out loud helps to release emotion," Merchant said Tuesday.

A growing number of states have their own versions of gold star plates to honor fallen soldiers, but they are a potent symbol in Vermont, which ranks among the top states in per-capita casualties in the post-9/11 war against terrorism. The Associated Press lists 28 people with Vermont connections as having died in Iraq, Afghanistan or Kuwait since the war in Iraq was launched almost six years ago. The state has a population of about 620,000.

Merchant, who lives in Johnson, was among more than two dozen families members who attended a ceremony Tuesday at a National Guard armory where they got their first look at the plates.

So far only families of those killed in the current wars have asked for the plates, but they can be issued to immediate relatives of people killed in any war, said Clayton Clark, head of the state office of Veterans Affairs. Vermont already has plates for Vietnam veterans and United States veterans.

Since World War I, when President Woodrow Wilson first suggested the idea, the gold star has come to symbolize a family's loss of a relative in the nation's wars.

The number of states offering gold star license plates is growing, said Georgianna Carter Krell, of Miami, the national president of American Gold Star Mothers. About 20 states now offer some type of gold star license plate, according to the group.

"They're treating the veterans and their families different than during Vietnam," Carter Krell said.

Through World War II and Vietnam, the gold star symbol typically was used to represent a mother's grief. Now the concept of the gold star - and possibly Krell's organization - is expanding to include all family members.

How each state distributes gold star license plates varies. Oklahoma, for example, permits them for parents of a dead soldier, while New York and Kansas restrict them to mothers. Massachusetts allows them for spouses, parents and children, while Florida requires the deceased service member be a resident of Florida at the time of death for the family to qualify. If there is a fee, it is minimal and often some of it goes to help veterans.

Merchant and his wife, Janet, helped persuade the Vermont Legislature to pass the law authorizing the plates. He didn't know what they were going to look like until he arrived for Tuesday's ceremony. Now each member of his family will get a set for their vehicles.

"I'm kind of excited that we managed to do this. I can't help but feel it not only honors our boys, it honors all the fallen soldiers from way back," Merchant said.

Marion Gray, of Calais, whose stepson was killed in Iraq in 2004 while serving with the Vermont National Guard, said many people didn't understand the symbolism of the gold star decal affixed to her car. Now she and her husband have the license plates too.

"Most times when people don't know they'll ask and that opens the door to explain," said Gray. "Even though we may not be veterans, our brothers, sons, husbands are, and were, and always will be in our mind."


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Wilson Ring, AP Writer © 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.
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