Toni Gross is a Gold Star Mother and president of the American Gold Star Mothers, Inc., in the Tampa Bay, Florida, area. She works tirelessly in her community, feeding veterans who are unable to feed themselves — and she works for the USO each week.
Gross is celebrating Gold Star Mother’s Day on Sunday. Sadly, there is only one way to become a Gold Star Mother: Your child must have been killed in military service. Gross buried her son, Frank, at Arlington National Cemetery on his 26th birthday in August 2011. He was the victim of an IED explosion in Afghanistan.
Gross speaks with a mother’s pride about Frank. Disciplined and focused, he attended Full Sail University in Florida, graduating at age 24 with a master’s degree in business.
“He also graduated with $200,000 worth of student loans,” Gross told LifeZette. “And being the diligent young man he was, he wanted to get his loans paid off, and he knew that the military had a student loan repayment program. I’m from a military family — my father had a 29-year Navy career — so it was the perfect fit. Frank was one of those kids who grew up with the GI Joe action figures.”
The Marines were actually the young man’s first choice — but Frank Gross had a big tattoo on one arm. “You can’t have a tattoo in the Marines,” said his mother.
Frank Gross joined the Army as an enlisted soldier in May 2010. He was a top graduate of basic combat training in Fort Benning, Georgia, said Gross, and he earned the basic rifle marksman award out of his entire class of 300. “If he would have gotten one more bullet out of his rifle, they would have named a range after him,” Toni Gross recalled proudly. “That was quite an achievement.”
In the Army, Frank Gross worked in communications. “Frank was sent to Afghanistan in July of 2011 from Fort Hood, Texas — he was stationed the southeastern border of Afghanistan working in long-range surveillance,” said Gross. “He excelled at his role.”
Frank Gross had been serving for a little over a year when he was killed. “Frank and three other soldiers had been chosen to go to the aid of a disabled land mine sweeper a couple of miles outside the forward operating base,” said Gross. “Frank was a gunner on the mission. The driver swerved to avoid what he thought was an IED — and in doing that they hit another IED.”
Frank Gross was the only fatality that day, said Gross — the other three in the military vehicle were injured, including his staff sergeant Dubois. They all received purple hearts for their bravery.
“Frank’s mission leader, Sergeant Dubois, had a concern for the men under his charge that day, and he called his father in Maryland,” said Gross. “He asked him, ‘Dad, would you please call up the Gross family and tell them their son has died?’ His bravery and spirit of service allowed him to have that concern for us. That is not usual military protocol.”
Sadly, by then the Gross family already knew about Frank’s death.
“We found out when we came home and there was a van in front of our home, and the casualty notification officer and the chaplain were inside of it,” said Gross. “They came in and read the statement explaining that our son had been killed in action. Major Heidi Reilly, as it turns out, is from the community next to mine — I had seen her before at the Walmart. I had no idea one day she would be coming to our home for this reason.”
Gross remembers that as Reilly read the statement, there was a solitary tear rolling down her face. “When I later asked her why, she said because she couldn’t imagine what we were going through — she had five little boys of her own.”
“I was numb,” said Gross. “I had to ask Major Heidi to read it twice — the first time it didn’t sink in.”
She continued, “You just hope as a mom and as a family it will never happen to you. Before my son deployed to Afghanistan he called me — all the single soldiers are told to call their parents and make their final arrangements, just in case. He said, ‘Mom, I want you to be the person authorized to take over everything should something happen to me. If I die, please cremate me and bury me at Arlington.’ Some of his final words were. ‘If I get maimed and come home, please shoot me.’ He couldn’t stand to think of a life lived that way.” Her voice softened. “We are grateful he didn’t come home maimed.”
To begin to heal, this mother turned to service. “I volunteer at the James A. Haley Veteran’s Hospital in Tampa every Wednesday in the spinal cord injury unit. These young soldiers who come in — I see my son in every one of them. That’s part of what we do as Gold Star Mothers. We serve.”
For Gross, being a Gold Star Mother brings comfort. “A military loss is a different kind of loss, and we needed the camaraderie of the gold star families. It is an honorable, unique, and even cherished loss. It’s an honor to be in the Gold Star family.”Gross’ husband Craig suffered longer than she over the loss of their only son. “Men don’t seek out the camaraderie of others as we women do,” Gross said. “Craig became very depressed — he was not the man God had given me 41 years ago. After Frank’s death, Craig found no joy in anything.”
Then — a miracle. “My husband was in the food service industry, and one day he had a vision to start a restaurant in memory of our son, called Frankie’s Patriot Barbeque. The restaurant is full of mementos that soldiers and veterans and families have brought in, pictures of their own sons. My husband is now happy, and putting his life into this.”
Frank Gross had a big sister, Natalie. “Natalie is 33, and she had a very difficult time coping with Frank’s death — she was the older sister and they had many of the same interests, like working out together and surfing. She still struggles, but God has answered our prayers for her. She is now a corporate flight attendant.”
Gross is busier than ever with her volunteering and her leadership of the Gold Star Mothers chapter.
“The best way to describe us is that we give honor through service,” she said. “I volunteer at the USO Welcome Center at Tampa International Airport every Friday night. I volunteer every week at The Fisher House, built on the campus of our veterans hospital, where families of injured veterans can stay for free. I am a certified feeder — I feed paralyzed veterans the barbeque from our restaurant when I can. I’ll put it next to the hospital food and say, ‘Would you like this stuff that appears to be Swedish meatballs, or some of Frankie’s Patriot Barbeque?’”
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On Sunday, Gross is participating in a ceremony to honor the families of the fallen and to remember their dead. They go to Arlington National Cemetery once a year, to visit their son’s grave.
“Both my parents are buried there, too, so it’s a family reunion of sorts,” she said. “We visit the cemetery for Wreaths Across America, when veterans’ graves are decorated with a wreath at Christmas time. Our causality assistance officer joins us with her five boys and little girl, so it’s very uplifting.”
In a twist of fate, Sergeant Dubois, who was with Frank Gross when he died, fell in love with his beloved girlfriend. “As fate would have it, every time they were here together, they had a little twinkle in their eyes,” said Gross. “As God would have it, in December of 2014 they married.”
“Out of tears have come joy,” she said of the marriage of Frank Gross’ girlfriend and his sergeant. “But it’s still bittersweet.”
Gross remembers a son taken too soon — and honors him both with her volunteer work and her work with the Gold Star Mothers. “Serving promotes healing,” she said. “I do it in my son’s memory.”
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“Sometimes, the ultimate love is not to sacrifice your life, but to live a life of sacrifice. This is what our Gold Star families do,” psychologist and retired Army Lt. Colonel David Grossman of Illinois told LifeZette. “To place the welfare of others ahead of your own. To do a dirty, dangerous, thankless job, every day of your life, to the utmost of your ability. Not to sacrifice your life, but to live a life of sacrifice. For most of us, therein lies the greatest love.”