by Ryan Labadens, U.S. Navy Public Affairs

Service to one’s country is one this our nation’s military members are known for. Giving back to the families of those who died in service of their country is what the Navy Gold Star Program does, and it is what one of Gulfport’s own Fleet and Family Service Center (FFSC) members was recently recognized for.

Emily Kolenda, the Navy Gold Star coordinator for Naval Construction Battalion Center (NCBC) Gulfport, Miss., was named the Navy Gold Star Coordinator of the Year for 2018. Rear Adm. Bette Bolivar, Commander, Navy Region Southeast, presented the award to Kolenda during a Southeast Region Navy Gold Star Conference at Naval Air Station (NAS) Jacksonville Feb. 12, 2019.

The Navy Gold Star Program is the U.S. Navy’s official organization designed to provide long-term support to surviving families of Sailors who pass away while serving in the military.

Kolenda has worked with various military-affiliated organizations for since 2001. She met her husband, a U.S. Navy Seabee who was deployed to Chinhae, South Korea, while she was working there as an intern for Moral, Welfare and Recreation (MWR). The two of them moved around over the years when her husband was stationed at different locations, and she eventually wound up working for FFSC while they were at Guantanimo Bay, Cuba, in 2013. She entered the newly-created position of Navy Gold Star coordinator at NCBC Gulfport when her family moved here in 2017.

“The Gold Star program created a new coordinator position here in Gulfport because of the need of how many survivors there were… and I was the lucky selectee to be able to take on this role,” said Kolenda. “Being that it was an opportunity to stay with Fleet and Family and learn about a program that was new and growing was really enticing to me.”

According to the Navy Gold Star website (, the Navy Gold Star program was established on Oct. 1, 2014, to help provide continuing support for surviving family members of fallen service members. The program honors Gold Star Families throughout the year by hosting events that pay tribute to their lost loved ones, providing resources and opportunities to connect with one another and to their Navy family.

Kolenda currently manages more than 1,150 family cases in the five states she services – Mississippi, Louisiana, Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina – which can make it a challenge to meet all of the family members in person. However, during 2018 she was able to maintain contact with all of them, and she was commended for being able to maintain 100% on quality assurance audits and compliance with all applicable instructions in helping the Gold Star family members.

In addition, she was also recognized for the support she provided to the family members of the 13 Sailors who died on Arleigh Burke-class guided missile destroyer USS Fitzgerald (DDG 62) in 2017, when the ship was involved in a collision with a container ship that seriously damaging the destroyer. Kolenda provided updates, answering questions and helping to coordinate the one-year remembrance ceremony and family tour that took place onboard the ship in Pascagoula, Miss., in 2018.

Kolenda also was commended for the creativity she employed to raise awareness of and participation in other Gold Star events, such as the Bells Across America ceremony, which pays respect to military service members who died while serving their country.

Barbara Jones, FFSC director at NCBC Gulfport, praised Kolenda for the exceptional service she provided as the Navy Gold Star coordinator.

“We are so fortunate to have Emily as she provides exceptional “Can Do” services to Navy Gold Star families.  Her support to the impacted families from the USS FITZGERALD was stellar,” said Jones. “She is considered the star of the region with the largest area of responsibility and is most deserving of the Navy Gold Star Coordinator of the Year Award.”

While she greatly appreciated being recognized, Kolenda stressed that she could not have been successful in her position without the support of the people in FFSC, her Gold Star program teammates, and the installation departments onboard NCBC Gulfport.

“All of these people created or encouraged opportunities that allowed me to highlight this program and the people it represents. It is because of these people that I received this award,” said Kolenda.