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September 23, 2019

U.S. Army Sgt. Ryan D. Jopek
U.S. Army Sgt. Ryan D. Jopek
Keith Sherman photograph

Keith Sherman camped in a rooftop tent on his 2017 Audi Q5 while at Minocqua’s Patricia Lake Campground & RV Park.
Keith Sherman photograph

Keith Sherman camped in a rooftop tent on his 2017 Audi Q5 while at Minocqua’s Patricia Lake Campground & RV Park.
9/7/2019 7:30:00 AM
U.S. Navy veteran makes Minocqua part of nationwide effort to document Gold Star stories

Brian Jopek
Lakeland Times Reporter


If there is a man on a mission lately, it's Keith Sherman of Heath, Massachusetts.

Sherman retired last year after a 26-year career in the U.S. Navy.

"I was a senior chief," Sherman said.

During the first several years of his career, Sherman served aboard two aircraft carriers - one deployment on the U.S.S. Theodore Roosevelt (CVN 71), two aboard the U.S.S. George Washington (CVN 73). He was then assigned to a drone squadron.

Over the rest of his career, which included several more deployments, Sherman was in special operations.

"The SEAL teams and the special warfare combatant crewman teams," he said. "I was an air operations trainer, so I specialized in working with and training SEALS and swift (boat) team members in insertion."

Upon his retirement in October 2018, Sherman began in earnest a project he felt compelled to take up. Recently, that project brought him to Minocqua.



The motivation

Almost immediately following his retirement, Sherman created the Gold Star Dirt Organization, dedicated to documenting stories of U.S. military service members who died in places like Iraq and Afghanistan in the post Sept. 11, 2001 era.

This reporter's oldest son, Ryan, was killed in action in Iraq on Aug. 1, 2006. It's people like Ryan who motivated Sherman to take on this project.

"The ultimate goal is 50 states, 50 stories," he said.

Sherman said some states, like Texas, might have as many as five stories because of the size of the state.

My son Ryan's story will be the sole Gold Star story from Wisconsin.

Sherman said he lost friends during his time in the Navy.

"(I lost) a lot of friends to war and to suicide," he said. "So, I compartmentalized, like you tend to do in the military, all my traumas and stuff."

Sherman is 100 percent disabled, a survivor of traumatic brain injury.

"The last year of my career I actually spent in the Wounded Warrior treatment program and the last three months, I was in an inpatient post-traumatic stress disorder program at a hospital," Sherman said.

As he explains it, the idea behind Gold Star Dirt was born from Sherman's desire to drive around the country, stopping along the way in the hometowns of the friends he'd lost and visit with their families.

"Maybe share some anecdotes of their loved one they hadn't heard that they might want to hear," Sherman said. "I figured, 'Well, if I'm going to do that, why couldn't I go to all 50 states? That's what I ended up deciding to do."



Media mentor

At first, Sherman said he wasn't sure how he'd find Gold Star family members to interview.

"I serendipitously met my executive producer, who's a Gold Star sibling herself," Sherman said.

That executive producer is Kristine Flores, who works from California, acting as the media consultant for Sherman and Gold Star Dirt, making contact with Gold Star family members through organizations such as Wisconsin Survivor Outreach Services.

It was through the Wisconsin SOS that I was linked up with Flores and subsequently interviewed a few days later in my office at The Lakeland Times.

Flores' brother, Michael Mihalakis, a member of the California Army National Guard's 270th Military Police Company, was 18 years old when he died Dec. 26, 2003, in Iraq, from injuries sustained in a vehicle accident at the Baghdad International Airport.

"She became a media mentor," Sherman said of Kristine. He had little or no knowledge of the workings of even a video camera before he began working with Flores, he noted.

"She decided to come on board and help me out," he said.

Flores saw a message Sherman posted in a Gold Star Family Facebook group explaining that he was looking for families to participate in a web-series type of project.

"I was interested not only from a content standpoint, but also from a production aspect, due to my background in broadcast journalism," she told me. "I looked him up on LinkedIn and noticed he had no production experience, so I was really interested in how he was going to pull the whole thing off!"

Flores said she sent Sherman a message on LinkedIn and from there they started talking. "He asked for some advice and I gave him a crash course in using camera/audio equipment, shooting, editing, etc.," she said. "Over the next few months, we kept in touch. Then he asked me if I wanted to be a part of the project."

Since that time, Flores said she's poured her "heart and soul into this project because it is incredibly important for me to help Keith be successful."



Finding his purpose

Shortly thereafter, Sherman was vetted through Army and Navy Gold Star programs, which provided an avenue to find Gold Star families.

"It just all miraculously came together," he said. "The Library of Congress reached out to me when they found out what I was doing and they were like 'Hey, have you heard of the Gold Star Voices Act?' I hadn't."

The Gold Star Voices Act, an expansion of the Veterans History Project, with its purpose to gather the stories of those lost in Iraq and Afghanistan from Gold Star family members, was approved by Congress and signed into law by President Barack Obama in late 2016.

"I was like, 'I'll go around the country and I'll document all these family stories and I'll create a collection for the Library of Congress,'" he said.

I asked Sherman where his office is.

"My car," he said, referring to his 2017 Audi Q5 with a mountain bike on a rack mounted on the back.

"Along for the ride is his motocross bike, so he can 'shred some dirt' in their honor," a fact sheet about Gold Star Dirt which Sherman gave me reads.

While the bike is stored in back, he has a rooftop tent mounted on his Audi.

"I just camp my way across the country and go to wherever the story is, wherever the Gold Star family is," Sherman said. "I don't care where it is. Wherever I can find a family, I'll drive to that location and find a campground or state park to stay at."

Wisconsin was the 39th state he's been to on this mission and while in Minocqua he camped at Patricia Lake Campground on Camp Pinemere Road.

After my interview, it was on to Iowa where he interviewed the mother of U.S. Army Capt. Robert Yllescas, killed in action in Afghanistan on Dec. 1, 2008.

In the days following my interview, Robert Yllescas's daughter, Julia, would make national news as the story of how she had faint images of her father in uniform incorporated into some of her senior portraits drew considerable attention.

By the end of the week, Sherman was in Alliance, Neb., where my boy Ryan was born on June 1, 1986.

Sherman was there to interview the mother of U.S. Army Sgt. Cory Mracek, killed in action in Iraq in January 2004.

On Aug. 25, he was in Sioux Falls, S.D., to interview the mother of U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Robb Rolfing, a Green Beret killed in action during June, 2007, in Iraq.

After that, he was in Fargo, N.D. for yet another interview.

So, Sherman is moving quickly - but really very thoughtfully - as he works his way to Alaska. .

"There's a mountain in the Chuditch Mountain Range they named 'Gold Star Peak' so now there's a mountain in honor of Gold Star families," Sherman said.

He intends to climb Gold Star Peak and read all the names of the U.S. military personnel whose stories he's documented with the help of their families.

After Alaska, Sherman plans to fly to Hawaii, get one of the Gold Star stories there and then drive back to Massachusetts - where he enlisted in the Navy in September 1992 - and get his final story.

In early November, in Washington, D.C., there will be a formal presentation of all the stories he's put together to the Library of Congress.

Sherman said all the Gold Star family members he's talked to will receive an invitation to attend that event.

"I don't know how many will come or be able to come, but they're all going to get personal invites," he said.

"Gold Star families just want their loved ones to be remembered," Flores said. "By collecting their stories, we are honoring their legacy. With every story told, I am keeping my brother's memory alive and all those who have made the ultimate sacrifice."

Brian Jopek may be reached via email at bjopek@lakelandtimes.com





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