Gov. Tina Kotek shakes hands with Valerie Morey, wife of late Vietnam veteran Pvt. Steven Morey, before a ceremonial bill signing on Sept. 27, 2023. (Julia Shumway/Oregon Capital Chronicle)
Starting next year, drivers traversing U.S. Highway 30 between Astoria and Ontario will see signs honoring Gold Star Families – the parents, children, spouses and siblings who lost loved ones serving in the military.
The Oregon Gold Star Families Memorial Highway will be the last of nine state-spanning highways honoring Oregon veterans. It marks the culmination of 14 years of work from Dick Tobiason, a retired Army lieutenant colonel from Bend and chairman of the Bend Heroes Foundation.
“It’s a symbol,” Tobiason said. “It caps all the highways and connects the families to the war their loved one served in.”
He was in Salem on Wednesday with a group of Gold Star family members for a ceremonial bill signing with Gov. Tina Kotek and state legislators. Kotek signed a law designating the highway in May, but Thursday’s brief event allowed family members to meet the governor and take home official pens and copies of the new law.
The Gold Star designation traces back to World War I, when families hung banners with embroidered blue stars for each immediate family member in the armed forces. If that service member died in combat, the family changed the stars from blue to gold. Mothers of fallen service members have been recognized on the last Sunday of September since 1936, and that law was amended to include all family members in 2011.
The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Rick Lewis, R-Silverton, served in the Army and Wyoming National Guard. He praised Tobiason for his persistence in making sure veterans are recognized – including working on an amendment to a law honoring prisoners of war and soldiers missing in action to ensure one Oregon veteran whose remains were brought directly to the Arlington National Cemetery didn’t go unrecognized because the law originally covered only those whose remains were returned to Oregon.
“You always hear of all the discord in the Legislature, but when it comes to veterans’ bills, they almost always pass unanimously,” Lewis said.
The Oregonians who joined Tobiason at the Capitol on Wednesday lost loved ones in World War II, Vietnam and Afghanistan. They’re among nearly 6,000 Oregon families, and 625,000 nationally, who have lost family members to military service.
Gaye Stewart of Dallas grew up hearing stories about her father, Army Staff Sgt. John William Williamson. But she doesn’t remember him – she was 3 years old when Williamson was killed while bringing ammunition to his troops in Luzon, an island in the Philippines. World War II ended just weeks after his death.
As a child, she felt cheated because she didn’t have a dad. She wrote a poem for him, which she now reads at ceremonies placing markers for Gold Star families in parks throughout the state with the Oregon State Federation of Garden Clubs.
“It serves as an additional reminder of how much we owe the veterans, because without that stalwart effort to keep us safe, and for democracy and for all our freedoms, it wouldn’t happen,” she said.
Valerie Morey’s late husband, Army Pvt. Steven LeRoy Morey, made it home from Vietnam but died in 2003 from cancer caused by his exposure to Agent Orange, an herbicide used in the war that’s been linked to serious health problems.
Morey is a member of Gold Star Wives of America, and the group plans to work on naming U.S. Highway 30, which crosses 11 states and ends in Atlantic City, New Jersey, a national memorial highway. The highway has special meaning to her family.
“It means so much because he was born and raised in St. Helens, Oregon, on Highway 30,” Morey said. “You can’t get anywhere in St. Helens without touching Highway 30, so that was just awesome.”
Gordon Treber, a 26-year Navy veteran who lives in Astoria, lost his son James in Afghanistan. The younger Treber was a sergeant in the Army Special Forces when he and two other soldiers were killed when their vehicle rolled into a river. The one surviving member of the four-person team said James helped cut him loose and he believes he was trying to save another team member when he perished.
Treber hopes the new highway designation makes people who aren’t familiar with Gold Star families learn more about them – but not because he wants their thanks for his son’s sacrifice.
“Maybe those kinds of people will get involved in government, and we won’t have wars. We won’t need those kinds of signs again,” he said. “It’ll be a history lesson. Whether that will ever happen, humans seem to be at war with each other for millennia, but hopefully that would change a mindset.”
The Oregon Gold Star Families Memorial Highway is the ninth state-spanning highway honoring military veterans. The other eight are:
- World War I Veterans Memorial Highway: U.S. Highway 395, a north-south route in eastern Oregon between California and the Washington border.
- World War II Veterans Memorial Highway: U.S. Route 97, a north-south route that goes from California through Bend and Biggs Junction.
- Korean War Veterans Memorial Highway: Interstate 5.
- Vietnam Veterans Memorial Highway: Interstate 84.
- Persian Gulf, Afghanistan and Iraq Veterans Memorial Highway: U.S. Highway 101 along the coast.
- Purple Heart Trail: Interstate 5.
- Oregon Medal of Honor Highway: U.S. Highway 20, which runs east-west from Newport to Nyssa.
- POW/MIA Memorial Highway: U.S. Route 26, which runs east-west from the coast to Nyssa.
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