If You See a License Plate with a Gold Star, This Is What It Means

The embellishment is a meaningful honor of the sacrifice of service members and their families

In America, license plates can serve as an extension of a person’s identity, whether that’s simply where they’re from, or their favorite song memorialized on a personalized plate. Eagle-eyed drivers may also notice particular symbols or honors, such as a gold star, often accompanied by the phrases “Gold Star Family” or “Gold Star Mother.” This embellishment has a rich history among American military families and honors their enduring patriotism.

What Does a Gold Star on a License Plate Mean?

A gold star signifies that a family member of the driver has died in the line of military duty. This military duty could include wars, terrorist attacks or peacekeeping operations.

The gold star was originally envisioned as an alternative to mourning garments, to provide a respectful celebration of the fallen service member’s dedication and character. According to American Gold Star Mothers, Inc., a nonprofit organization dedicated to aiding veterans, “[t]he idea of the Gold Star was that the honor and glory accorded the person for [their] supreme sacrifice in offering for [their] country, the last full measure of devotion and pride of the family in this sacrifice.” 

The History of the Gold Star Program

The gold star program evolved out of the blue star program, which was founded by World War I Army Captain Robert L. Queisser of the Ohio 5th Infantry in 1917. His two sons served on the front line, and he developed the “Blue Star Service Banner” to honor them. This traditional banner featured a white background with a red border and a blue star in the middle for each service member. Captain Queisser displayed it proudly in his window, and soon other local military families did too, in their homes, churches, businesses, and schools. By September 1917, Ohio’s adoption of this service flag was formally codified in the Ohio Congressional Record.

The following year, the Women’s Committee of the Council of National Defense proposed that women—particularly mothers—wear a black armband with a gold star for each fallen service member. President Woodrow Wilson approved this proposal on May 28, and a decade later in 1928, 25 mothers went to Washington, DC, to officially form American Gold Star Mothers, Inc. These mothers and numerous other families amended the blue-starred service banners with gold stars to signify the sacrifices of their fallen relatives. In 1936, Congress declared the last Sunday of September “Gold Star Mother’s Day.”

Both the blue and gold star programs have stood the test of time, with numerous appearances in the modern day. For example, the American Legion provided service banners to families in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. In 2011, President Barack Obama amended “Gold Star Mother’s Day” to “Gold Star Mother’s and Family’s Day.” And, of course, gold stars still adorn license plates.

How to Apply for a Gold Star

If one of your family members has died in the line of duty, you may be eligible to receive a gold star on your license plate. Different states have different requirements; for example, California allows grandchildren to apply for a gold star, while Tennessee and Vermont only allow spouses, siblings, parents and children.

To discover the requirements for your particular state, look it up in this chart from Gold Star Mothers, Inc. Note that in order to apply you will need to prove relation to the fallen service member, as well as their passing in the form of a DD 1300.

Moreover, if you are struggling financially or emotionally in the wake of a loved one’s passing, consider reaching out to a Department of Defense Gold Star and Surviving Family Member representative. Other helpful organizations include the American Widow Project and the Special Operations Warrior Foundation.

How to Help Gold Star Families

If you would like to support gold star families and thank them for their sacrifice, there are numerous ways to do so. Consider donating or volunteering through any of the below nonprofits:

Each organization listed provides a unique opportunity to help gold star families, whether that’s connecting them with the larger community, covering some of their bills, gifting them a memorial flag, putting them through training programs, or providing legal help to those at risk of deportation. However you choose to assist, know that you’re giving something tangible to the loved ones of those who have given their lives for this country.