- Donald Trump has been criticized for comments about Gold Star family members
- Gold Star families are those that have lost immediate members during a war
Washington (CNN)It is venerated status that no one wants: Gold Star family.
For nearly 100 years, inclusion has been earned for losing an immediate family member serving during wartime. And in the last week, the concept has received singular prominence after the parents of a slain Muslim American soldier appeared at the Democratic National Convention and became the focus of the 2016 presidential race's latest controversy.
Khizr and Ghazala Khan, the father and mother of Army Capt. Humayun Khan, killed by a suicide bomber in Iraq, took the stage in Philadelphia on Thursday to denounce Trump for his position on Muslim immigration, holding up a copy of the US Constitution and saying Trump "sacrificed nothing and no one."
Since Friday, Trump has taken to Twitter to accuse Khan of "viciously attacking him" and said "I'd like to hear his wife say something" after she remained silent on Thursday night. She has since said she was overcome with emotion.
Following Trump's response, the Khans and other Gold Star families have received an outpouring of support from both Republicans and Democrats. On Monday afternoon, President Barack Obama joined these voices, saying, "No one has given more for our freedom and our security than our Gold Star families."
But despite its widespread use, the term Gold Star family isn't universally understood. For one thing, it doesn't refer to a medal received by a soldier for valor -- such as a Bronze Star, Silver Star or Purple Heart.
Instead, it concerns the status of the family members themselves.
The term traces its origins back to World War I. During that conflict, Americans would fly a flag bearing a blue star for every immediate family member serving in the armed forces. The star would be changed to gold if the family lost a loved one in the war.
The US Army officially calls the bereaved family members "gold star survivors."
"The Army recognizes that no one has given more for the nation than the families of the fallen," the Army's website says in its official description.
"Gold Star families are special, to say the least," said retired Gen. John Kelly, whose son, a US Marine officer, was killed in Afghanistan in 2010.
"I'm not, but they are," he told a Pentagon news conference in January.
It is not known precisely how many Gold Star families there are, but over 6,000 US service members have died in the recent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The last Sunday of September is observed as Gold Star Mothers' and Families' Day. The day was first observed in 1936.
In 1947, the US Congress passed a law authorizing and distributing Gold Star lapel pins for family members to wear.
Gold Star families do not comprise a formal organization, but several organizations representing Gold Star family members emerged during the 20th century.
In 1928, 25 mothers who lost sons in World War I met in Washington to establish the American Gold Star Mothers organization. The Gold Star Wives organization was formed during World War II.
On Monday, a new informal group emerged. Eleven Gold Star families wrote a letter slamming Trump's comments.
"We feel we must speak out and demand you apologize to the Khans, to all Gold Star families, and to all Americans for your offensive and frankly anti-American comments," the letter said.