ALWAYS THERE: Chapter 67’s Gold Star Mothers Honor Guard
BY RICHARD CURREY
Public Resolution 123, adopted and approved by Congress in June 1936, observed that “the American Gold Star Mothers suffered the supreme sacrifice of motherhood in the loss of their sons and daughters in World Wars,” and directed the President to proclaim the last Sunday in September Gold Star Mothers Day as a public expression of the “love, sorrow and reverence of the people of the United States for the American Gold Star Mothers.”
What began seventy-eight years ago as a day of heartfelt salute has evolved into Gold Star Mothers Weekend, including a banquet, keynote addresses (this year from the former commanding officer of the U.S.S. Cole and the national director of the VA Chaplains Service), the laying of wreaths at The Wall and the Tomb of the Unknowns, receptions and informal meetings, and the centerpiece event: a memorial service for fallen sons and daughters at Arlington National Cemetery.
VVA’s Chapter 67 of Delaware County, Pennsylvania, has supported the Gold Star Mothers with an honor guard at the national ceremony every year since the late 1980s. Current honor guard commander Ray Stankus recalled that years ago during some of the busy Gold Star Mother Weekends there was time to gather on a more intimate basis at VVA national headquarters.
Stankus served in Vietnam as an infantry platoon commander with the 173rd Airborne. In one particular conversation with a Gold Star Mother at a VVA get-together, Stankus learned that the woman’s son died while serving with the 173rd.
“She knew the unit very well,” Stankus said. “It was almost as if being well-versed on the 173rd brought her closer to her lost son. I felt as if, standing there gently reminiscing about the old unit, I had the high honor to be her son’s living representative.”
Stankus was clearly moved by his memory of this conversation. “I think we too often forget that for every fallen warrior there’s a family at home who suffers that loss more acutely than anybody,” he said. “Recognizing this loss and honoring itthat’s what Chapter 67’s support for Gold Star Mothers is all about.”
Times have changed over the years that Chapter 67 has sent its honor guard to the Gold Star Mothers national ceremony. With the Vietnam era inching ever further into the past, Stankus noted that “the women of the Vietnam generationour mothers’ generationhit the point where they couldn’t travel anymore or had passed away. There came a time where we saw dwindling numbers of Gold Star moms at each year’s national ceremony.”
Unfortunately for many thousands of American families, a new generation of Gold Star Mothers emerged. With Desert Storm in the early 1990s and the invasion of Iraq in 2003, the nation once again saw growing numbers of combat fatalities. With troops now deployed in multiple combat theaters for more than a decade, Gold Star Mothers continue to shoulder a burden of grief the rest of us can only guess at.
Bridging the Gold Star generation gap has not always been easy.
“We had generational touchpoints with Vietnam-era momsbut today’s Gold Star moms came of age in the 1990s,” Stankus said. Without the vocabulary of shared cultural references, connecting with younger Gold Star Mothers has not been as fluid as it was with Vietnam-era mothers.
“This is understandable, of course,” Stankus said. “The younger Gold Star moms look at us and the first thing they see is a bunch of old guysgrandfathers. Certainly not the kind of faces they associate with the wars fought by their sons and daughters.”
Stankus said that it can be difficult to talk with younger Gold Star Mothers and maintain one’s composure. “Your sorrow for them is so great. Here are these young women who have lost children. That pain is right there in their eyes. Their wounds are still very fresh. But we also need to be a resource for them. After all, our chapter’s Gold Star outreach mission is about the moms, not about us.”
In light of Chapter 67’s long-time commitment to Gold Star Mothers, Stankus has concerns about the larger levels of support the Gold Star Mothers organization receives from the military and Congress. “When we first started going to Arlington, one of the military branches would bring in a large orchestra along with a full chorus,” he said. “But in the last couple years it seems to have come down to a few musicians. I realize that funding and resources are challenged everywhere in the government these days, but this level of support for our Gold Star Mothers strikes me as shameful.”
Stankus added that it’s not so much about the number of military musicians who show up on Gold Star Sunday, but rather that this apparent decline in support sends the wrong message. “It seems to say that our Gold Star Mothers do not require the level of national salute that I certainly believe they do. These ladies have one day a year at Arlington to honor their fallen kids and allow all of us to join them in that observance. We should not stint in our recognition of what these women have given to the country.”
Consistent with Chapter 67’s Gold Star honor guard tradition, Stankus believes that the chapter might consider maintaining that tradition with more forms of outreach to the next generations of Gold Star Mothers “to show our support wherever and whenever we can.”
After all, Stankus added, “the dues you have to pay to become a Gold Star Mother are brutal. It’s a price that nobody wants to pay. But when a mother, and a family, pay that price, we must never, never forget.”
Remembrance, Stankus said, lies at the heart of Chapter 67’s presentation of the colors at Arlington every September. “When people look at our honor guard, they don’t see us, they see one of the 58,000 who never came back from Nam. They see one of the men or women who didn’t come back from Iraq or Afghanistan. That’s what our mission is all about. The job of the Chapter 67 honor guard is to remember those fallen sons and daughters and recognize them and march for them, and to honor their mothers’ great sacrifice. And, maybe, to offset just a little bit of the pain.”
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