Cathy Heighter is a Chamber member (Remembering Heroes), Palm Coast City Council Person and Gold Star Mother. Cathy was recently featured in a Newsday newspaper and TV news report as she returned to New York to commemorate the 20th anniversary of her son death in the Iraq War. Watch/read below to listen to Cathy Heighter’s inspirational message:

The below is the newspaper article that appeared in Newsday:

Gold Star mom visiting her son’s Long Island grave doesn’t want your pity

By Matthew Chayes

Updated July 22, 2023 3:32 pm

Cathy Heighter would be grocery shopping or working at her beauty salon in Bay Shore or dining at a restaurant on Main Street when someone would bring up her son Raheen Tyson Heighter, the first Long Islander killed in the Iraq War.

Her experience was always bittersweet, and constant, she said.

“I felt like a lot of times when people saw me, they wanted to feel sorry for me, and I didn’t want people to feel sorry for me, because I was just so proud of my son’s service,” said Heighter, 67. “People would actually be apologizing.”It all became too much.

Cathy Heighter, a Suffolk native, moved to Florida after feeling pitied over the death of her son Raheen Tyson Heighter, the first Long Islander killed in the Iraq War.

She doesn’t want anyone to feel sorry for her — she’s proud of her son’s service and sacrifice — and is returning to the Island to mark the 20th anniversary of his death July 24, 2003.

Her experience on Long Island isn’t uncommon among Gold Star families nationwide.So in November 2005, Heighter — who had lived in Bay Shore since age 2, having been born in Huntington Hospital — moved to Florida to get away.—“I really was ready for the change,” she said. “I was ready to move on. I was ready to start over.”

This week, she’s making a pilgrimage back from Palm Coast, Florida — to mark the 20th anniversary of her son’s death: July 24, 2003. She’ll visit his grave site at Long Island National Cemetery at Pinelawn.

She’ll place flowers on the headstone.“

It’s a monumental date for me,” she said, adding: “It’s hard to believe that it’s been 20 years, actually.”

She added: “I’m still very proud that I have absolutely kept my promise to my son, and I made a promise to never forget his sacrifice and always remember him, and that was a promise I made to him right after I found out he was gone.”

Cathy Heighter used to return annually to visit the grave but hasn’t been back in three or four years.She flew to Kennedy Airport on July 22 out of Jacksonville, Florida, for a three-day trip. On Monday, she’ll bring the flowers and a friend, and perhaps her now-20-year-old grandson, who lives in Brentwood and was 4 or 5 months old when his uncle was killed.

A Gold Star Experience

What Heighter experienced before she moved away from Long Island — “the grocery store experience” — is extremely common for Gold Star families everywhere, according to Bonnie Carroll, who founded the organization Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors, or TAPS, after the death in 1992 of her husband in an Army C-12 plane crash.“

In the military, deaths can be very public, especially in Cathy’s case, where it was early on in the war,” Carroll said, adding: “There was an expectation from her community, how they perceive she should be grieving, and that can be rather unforgiving and rather judgmental.”

In the first days, weeks and months following a loved one’s death, bereaved families need help meeting immediate needs, adjusting to their “new normal,” making funeral arrangements, accessing military benefits, and achieving or maintaining financial security.“

For many families, it really isn’t until several months later that the full weight of the reality that we will never see our loved one again kind of hits at the gut level,” Carroll said.

Families remember the loved one, honoring their memory, understanding that feelings of tremendous loss — anxiety, fear, sadness, outward mourning — are all normal.

Ultimately, families settle into a lifelong process of imbuing the loss with meaning and purpose.

“That part of the journey really extends forever — that’s for the rest of our lives — we remember, we grieve the ones we have lost,” she said. The roots of the Gold Star to symbolize the loss of a loved one during military service date to World War I, when the deceased’s bereaved family would wear a black arm band with a gilt star.

Heighter’s other son, Glynn Heighter, named his barbershop in Bay Shore after his brother.

Remembering VETS

Living in Florida, Heighter went back to school, earned a bachelor’s degree, completed part of an MBA, got her real estate license, worked as a liaison at a hospice, became a property manager, ran for elective office, becoming a city councilwoman last year, 17 years after moving.And she started a nonprofit — then called Remembering VETS — to support people including veterans, first responder and Gold Star families. She helped place an Invisible Wounds Memorial dedicated to service personnel and veterans who have post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injury, or both. She became a volunteer to help disabled American veterans out of Daytona Beach, and became a local president of an organization of Gold Star moms.

On Memorial Day, Veterans Day, whenever, really, Heighter wants to spread the word about her son’s, and others’, service.“I take any opportunity to speak and talk about my son and remember all the sacrifices that have been made by not only my son but all those that have served this country,” she said.

Heighter recalled last week how years ago she was a relatively new Gold Star mom and seated at a luncheon with another Gold Star mom from Long Island and listening to Gold Star moms from the Vietnam era.“

They were all telling the same stories that they had told 30 years ago: ‘Oh, I lost my son 30 years,’ and we both looked at each other and we said, ‘That’s not gonna be me,’ and we chuckled and laughed,” Heighter said, “and I tell people, ‘Well, here I am 20 years later, and I’m still telling the same story, but I’m honored to tell that story.’ ”

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