Telling Their Stories: a Gold Star family
EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the third in an occasional series called "Telling their Stories," which highlights local veterans in partnership with the Lake Oswego Veterans Memorial. Learn more about the organization online at lwww.loveteransmemorial.org.
U.S. Air Force veteran Tom Gregoire and his wife Alice have six children, but in all reality, that number is closer to 12 or 13.
"You know how some families collect cats and dogs? These people collect children," says J'Neanne Theus, the oldest of the Gregoires' offspring and their only daughter.
She's only half joking.
Tom and Alice, according to their own account, have an uncanny knack for gathering children whose family situations fell apart or who don't have family at all. In addition to their six biological kids — J'Neanne, Pat, Joe, Ray, Brian and Brent — the Gregoires took in several others along the way, including Buddy, Shane, Creighton and a handful of foster kids.
Tom says he didn't plan for nearly all of those children to follow him into the military — he definitely didn't plan for one of his sons to die in service to his country. But that's the way it turned out for a Gold Star family that understands the true meaning of sacrifice.
And it all began in February of 1954.
That's when Tom enlisted in the U.S. Air Force to become a dental lab technician. The Montana native and his new bride Alice moved to Maxwell Air Force base, where Tom studied dental lab technology and finished first in his class. They remained in Alabama for four years and had their first three children there: J'Neanne, Pat and Joe.
"Kids in the military realize from a very young age that the most significant people in their lives are their family," J'Neanne says. "You make friends fast, but there becomes this awareness that the only ones you can count on are the ones in your family, because you're all going to travel together."
That life lesson wasn't lost upon the Gregoire children — although despite that strong sense of family, they couldn't let go of some of the friends they made along the way as their father was transferred from air base to air base, across the country and sometimes around the world.
In 1974, Tom retired from the military after 20 years of service as a dental lab technician and instructor — a career that took him from Montgomery, Ala., to Tachikawa, Japan, and beyond. The family had moved six times in the past 15 years alone, including stops in California, Texas, Colorado and Ohio.
But they were about to embark on their final move.
"I had been out here in Portland working at a lab over on Southeast Hawthorne Street, and I called Alice and said, 'When are you coming?' And she said, "Well, we have to wait for graduation, and I'm bringing a couple extra kids with me," Tom recalls. "This was a complete surprise to me, and I had to go find a house. I had a friend who said, 'You should go out to Lake Oswego."
While Tom finalized the living arrangements, Alice — now with eight kids in tow — hopped into a 1969 Plymouth station wagon and drove to Portland. Those two extra heads were Buddy and Rick, two friends of Pat whose families weren't as supportive as the Gregoires.
"Buddy was told by his father that when he turned 18, he was off to the military. And my mom said, 'Nope, you're coming with us," J'Neanne says.
So the Gregoires-plus-two packed into that '69 Plymouth — pulling a trailer full of their belongings, including a handful of motorcycles — and headed for Oregon.
"The neighbors were a little worried when we moved in," Alice says. "People thought we had a biker gang with all the boys' motorcycles out front."
Once in Oregon, J'Neanne, Pat and Buddy all started school at Oregon State University, while the younger boys adjusted to life in Oregon by picking up two new brothers, Creighton and Shane.
Tom and Alice recall having a constant pack of 15 boys roughhousing or playing games in the basement den. Their house was an epicenter of activity, and always a safe haven for those who needed it.
It also served as a launching pad for military careers when many of Tom and Alice's kids followed his example and decided to serve their country.
J'Neanne entered the Navy and was commissioned as an officer. Pat and Buddy joined the Marine Corps to become fighter pilots; both went on to attend the Navy's Strike Fighter Tactics school — colloquially known as Topgun — and both went on to fly with the Marine Reserves' Fighter Attack Squadron.
Joe, Ray and Shane all attended OSU as well, while Brian and Brent went to Portland State and Linfield University, respectively. Joe, Shane, Brian and Brent all went on to join the Marine Corps, just like Pat and Buddy.
While it wasn't planned for so many of the Gregoire children to enter the military, it was a natural fit for the boisterous bunch of boys and the single girl who had learned to be even more tough and thick-skinned than her brothers.
"My dad was always very positive about his military career, and he had such a good attitude about it," J'Neanne says. "There weren't a lot of women in the military at that time, but I honestly never thought about that."
Each of the Gregoires went on to have intriguing careers in the military, with high-impact jobs. J'Neanne's service included time as an intelligence officer with an anti-submarine squadron in Maine. She also served in the Office of Naval Intelligence at the Pentagon.
Pat and Buddy became ace fighter pilots. Brian served as an artillery officer at the tip of the spear during Operation Desert Storm in Iraq, and Brent was part of a unit of Marines responsible for the extraction of 105 Americans from Eritrea in 1996.
But the family's military service also included heartbreak. On Aug. 22, 1996, Lt. Col. Patrick T. Gregoire's plane went missing over the Atlantic Ocean during a training exercise. The speculation is that he had a medical emergency of some sort and passed out.
"Everyone was shocked," J'Neanne says. "He was like the best of the best of the best. He was a phenomenal (pilot)."
A memorial for Pat in Quantico, Va., saw thousands of friends, family and fellow Marines in attendance. Buddy gave the eulogy, a speech that Tom copied and reviews from time to time.
The family was already close-knit, of course, but Pat's death had a galvanizing effect on the Gregoires. They are a Gold Star family now, which means they've lost a member of their family while in service of their country.
To this day, they proudly display their service banner in the front window of their Lake Oswego home, with eight white stars accompanying the one gold.
"There are probably a lot of Gold Star families in Lake Oswego that nobody knows about, and that's why this memorial is so important," Tom says, referring to plans currently underway to build a tribute to military veterans in Foothills Park.
"Imagine two men standing in front of this memorial when it's built. They strike up a conversation about where they served or who they lost. Then they go their separate ways," Tom says. "That's why we need this memorial, because that's the only place where those types of conversations happen."
There, and anywhere remarkable families like the Gregoires happen to gather.
A new Veterans Memorial proposed for Foothills Park would honor the service of first responders and military veterans. Donations to the project can be sent to the group's treasurer, Scott Thompson, at P.O. Box 1188, Lake Oswego, OR 97035.
For more information, go to www.loveteransmemorial.org.