GOLD STAR MOTHERS: The Awful Price
BY WILLIAM TRIPLETT
Every war is different, yet every war is the same. The battlefields, the weapons, the strategies and tacticsall and more may change with time. But every war has included people fighting, people getting hurt, and people dying.
So perhaps it’s no surprise that an organization rooted in the lastand most terribleof those three things would evolve in certain ways while its core identity doesn’t change. Or tries not to, at least. Some change is inevitable. The question is, how much?
American Gold Star Mothers, which has been close to the hearts of VVA members, is an organization in transition. It has been for several years, as a new generation of leadership takes over from the previous one. Put another way, AGSM is, in a sense, going from Vietnam to Afghanistan and Iraq. There are new faces, new ideas, and in some cases new clothes. But the awful price of membership remains tragically the samea son or daughter killed while in service to the country.
Perhaps more than anything else, it is that price that continues to bind all AGSM members together, regardless of age. True, some differences of opinion have emerged between the Vietnam-era mothers and those of the Afghanistan-Iraq era, mainly regarding organizational procedures and protocol. And for some of the older moms, the stark contrast between how the public treated themvery much the way Vietnam veterans were treatedand how the public has largely embraced the veterans and honored the dead of Iraq and Afghanistan has made some old scars chafe.
But mothers of both generations say that most of the differences, if not all, are part of a normal process of evolution. The younger mothers add that the Vietnam-era mothers have been an inspiration in many ways, particularly in demonstrating that serving the nation’s veterans of any war remains among the highest tributes they can pay to their fallen children’s memory. “They have guided us so much,” says AGSM President Jennifer Jackman of the Vietnam War mothers.
AGSM grew out of the United States’ involvement in World War I. When Grace Seibold learned near the end of the war that her son (a pilot) had been killed in the skies over Europe, she devoted herself to undertaking even more work than she had already been doing as a hospital volunteer helping wounded veterans. Eventually she formed a group of mothers who had lost children in World War I, and she christened the group Gold Star Mothers, in reference to the Gold Star banner that families of deceased soldiers received from the government and hung in windows.
According to the AGSM official history, twenty-five mothers met in Washington, D.C., in 1928 “to establish a national organization, American Gold Star Mothers, Inc.a nondenominational, nonprofit and nonpolitical organization. There were many small groups of Gold Star Mothers functioning under local and state charters. When these groups learned of a national organization with representation in nearly every state in the union, they wished to affiliate with the larger group and many did so.”
Membership subsequently opened to mothers of those killed in other American conflictsWorld War II, Korea, Vietnam, Kuwait, Afghanistan, and Iraq.
The federal government started issuing the Gold Star Lapel Button, as it is officially known, in 1947. It was awarded to the surviving family of military personnel killed in action. In 1977 the government added the Next of Kin Lapel Button, a similar gold star on a different background, “to honor those who lose their lives while serving on active duty or while assigned in a Reserve or National Guard unit in a drill status,” according to the Gold Star Pins website. AGSM membership is open to mothers who have received either pin.
Since its inception, AGSM has existed primarily to help care for the nation’s wounded warriors and in particular the disabledvisiting them in hospitals, helping them in any way possible, even long after the final shots of battle have been fired. In the late 1920s Gen. John “Black Jack” Pershing, who commanded the American Expeditionary Force in Europe during World War I, said: “The bugles are not blowing, the drums of war are not throbbing. Yet a grateful nation needs the Gold Star Mother just as much today as it did then. We reach out for her support, her patriotism, her moral grandeur, just as we did in those troublous days.”
AGSM also has served as a powerful support group for its members. After learning of her son’s death in 1918, Grace Seibold was reported to have said, “Grief, if self-contained, is self-destructive.” Continuing her volunteer work with wounded veterans helped her maintain a positive focus amid the pain, which she knew could easily overwhelm her. So she made a point of reaching out to other mothers who had lost sons in the war to offer friendship, consolation, and understanding, as well as a chance to do some good.
AGSM has experienced its share of controversies. One of the earliest was the result of a pilgrimage members were to undertake to visit the cemeteries of American dead in Europe some ten years after World War I ended. Members were to be segregated by race, which drew the attentionand angerof the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. There also was controversy generated by the organization’s unwillingness to acknowledge as eligible for membership mothers of soldiers who committed suicide, even in combat situations. Post-traumatic stress disorder did not even have a name back then, but its toll was just as devastating.
In more recent years membership eligibility remained controversial. Mothers had to be U.S. citizens in order to join, a criterion some felt was unfair to mothers who were legal residents. The issue threatened to split AGSM deeply until those who were in favor of opening membership to legal residents eventually prevailed.
Vietnam-era mothers were not welcomed by World War II Gold Star Mothers. “The World War II mothers didn’t think the Vietnam mothers were worthy of being Gold Star Mothers,” says Barb Benard, AGSM president from 2013-14. To the World War II mothers, the Vietnam War wasn’t a real war. It certainly wasn’t a popular war, but mainly for so many people it was not as easily understood or defined as World War II was.
But as inevitably happens, one generation ages and begins to fade from view and the next one assumes leadership. Eventually, Vietnam-era mothers assumed AGSM leadership from the World War II mothers, and now Afghanistan and Iraq mothers are similarly taking over from the Vietnam-era mothers. There are no more Vietnam-era mothers on AGSM’s board of directors, and of the organization’s 2,300 members, only 90 are Vietnam-era moms.
Some differences are to be expected.
“They think like our daughters, not like us,” says Georgie Carter Krell, the last Vietnam-era mother to be AGSM president (2008-09).
“We’ve definitely had to move more into the electronic age,” says Benard, whose son was killed in Iraq. “The Vietnam mothers were still using paper records. They kept all membership information on file cards. We computerized everything. But we’ve also finally started doing budgets, and we created a committee for strategic planning. We have to be more businesslike and careful of our expenses. When you still use paper, it’s hard to do any really detailed strategic planning.
“We’ve also modernized protocols and ceremonies,” Benard adds, “but the Vietnam mothers may like things the old way.” The entrance of the flag at official functions is one such change. “We do it differently,” says AGSM President Jennifer Jackman, whose son was killed in 2007.
“At our conventions the Vietnam mothers sit in the front row, and you can see them roll their eyes because we don’t follow all the same procedures,” says Benard.
“They have their own tune they’re marching to,” says Krell. “I don’t tell them much anymore.”
AGSM’s official dress code has also been a subject of some controversy. When Ruth Stonesifer, whose son was killed in Afghanistan, attended her first AGSM regional meeting in Pennsylvania in May 2004, she asked herself, “What’s the deal with all this white stuff?” As instructed, she had come dressed in white, but then questioned others who were similarly dressed, only to be told repeatedly, “We’ve always done that.”
Stonesifer later learned that AGSM had formally adopted white as the official color of dress in the 1980s, but the wearing of the white, as it’s been called, dates back to the founding of the organization.
The AGSM official history doesn’t say when or why the founders wore white, but it theorizes that the decision to wear white rather than black “was a strong statement of how the women wanted to be perceived. Yes, they mourned their lost children, but white made a symbolic statement that went beyond mourning, a statement of peace, sacrifice, innocence, and goodness. Those were the things that their children had been and had died for. Wearing white celebrated their children’s contributions while the gold star acknowledged their sacrifice.”
Also, when Gold Star Mothers were serving as volunteers in veterans hospitals during and after World War I, the Red Cross nurses wore white. Holly Fenelon, author of the AGSM official history, thinks the desire to maintain a close association with the Red Cross is also among the prominent reasons why AGSM has always worn white.
The original full dress code included white hats, gloves, and capes, but the color alone was enough to prompt some of the newer AGSM members to refer to it as “the dreaded white.”
However, Stonesifer quickly understood the power of wearing the white when she was part of an AGSM group attending a candlelight vigil at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington on a Memorial Day weekend.
“Around dusk, the ‘Carry the Flame’ procession walked solemnly to the apex of The Wall,” Stonesifer wrote. “Veterans and their families held glow-stick candles above us with the crowd making way for the moms in white. The mothers who had not dressed in white were gradually peeled away from the main group. They were simply not recognized as being a part of the Gold Star Mother group. They had to fight their way back through the crowd to catch up to the moms in white because the crowd had closed ranks on them, thinking they were part of the onlookers. I could definitely see the advantage of wearing white after just that one event.”
“They were going to change everything,” says Ann Wolcott, a Vietnam-era mother, of the younger new members. To them, the white dress code was a relic, she says. “But then they found out that if you’re wearing black slacks to a function, you don’t get recognized.”
“You definitely need to wear white, especially at candlelight vigils,” says Benard. “But we’ve done away with the gloves and capes.”
Krell also thinks the younger mothers may be “spread too thin. They’re trying to do too much, and it distracts them from the hospital work,” she says. For instance, some are involved with activities more directly related to their lost sons or daughters, leaving less time to help wounded veterans, Krell says.
Benard says it’s up to each mother to decide whether to be involved in other activities, and Jackman acknowledges that sometimes “you do need a reminder to keep coming back to the core mission. Does it support veterans, or the mothers if they need it? You really need to think about whether to do it.”
Overall, though, Krell says she has faith in the organization and sees that “good things are going on and will continue.” She continues doing good things herself, still volunteering regularly at age 83 at the Bruce W. Carter VA Medical Center in Miami, which is named after the son she lost in Vietnam.
Perhaps the biggestand most difficultdifference isn’t generational, but experiential. “The younger moms have a lot more advantages than we ever did,” says former AGSM President Wolcott. For starters, they get far more public sympathy and recognition for their losses, she says. “Their sons are called heroes. There’s a bill to get the mothers military ID cards for base privileges. I’ve heard some mothers apply for PTSD counseling and get it.
“I’ve never received any benefits or even counseling,” says Wolcott, whose son had been an Army Ranger in Vietnam. “No one ever asked me how I was doing or if I needed anything.” Many of the younger mothers receive “boxes and boxes” of things that had belonged to their sons or daughters, sent back from Iraq or Afghanistan, she adds. “I got a brown folded paper grocery bag that had some of my son’s shaving things and a tube of toothpaste. It hurts. It’s like our sons didn’t count as much.”
The times, clearly, have a-changed, and the younger mothers say they are acutely aware of it. “The Vietnam mothers are the reason we have had such public support,” Benard says. “It’s because of what they did and went through, and the Vietnam veterans, too. It’s because of them that the public has been so supportive of us.
“We know the Vietnam mothers did not get attention or support,” Benard continues. “We also recognize that they’re the mothers who held this organization together when the public still didn’t really care. We revere our Vietnam mothers.”
It’s almost an echo of the VVA founding principle: Never again will one generation of veterans abandon another. And clearly, VVA members continue to feel a powerful bond with the Vietnam-era mothers. “In a way it’s like we became best friends of their lost sons,” says former VVA President Tom Corey. In some cases, he adds, “it was like we were their sons. And they were almost on a higher shelf for us than our own real mothers because they had lost something so special.”
Corey first met Krell when he was a patient at the Carter VAMC in Miami. “She and others were always around us, in white, looking like nuns,” he says. “You really felt protected.” Corey has also met some of the younger mothers. “They’re wonderful,” he says.
Jackman notes that all four strategic goals the AGSM Board of Directors established for the coming year involve the Vietnam-era mothers or their concerns. One goal is the AGSM campaign to raise $50,000 for the planned education center to be built near The Wall. Another is the effort to have a Gold Star Mothers monument placed at Arlington National Cemetery. “This is huge to the Vietnam mothers,” Jackman says.
There will also be an event marking the 50th anniversary of the start of the Vietnam War, and there’s a national outreach program to get younger mothers to accompany and help Vietnam mothers attend the next AGSM national convention, a journey some of them can’t make on their own.
“Most of the younger moms are nice and look up to and respect the older moms,” says Wolcott.
Jackman says it’s only natural. “There will be a lifetime for us to deal with our sons’ era. The Vietnam mothers don’t have that. That’s why I’m committed to those strategic goals.”
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