Sunday, December 18, 2005
Gold Star Mom, Beirut Veterans of America Mom
A group born of the grief of war weathers a tempest
Sunday, December 18, 2005
BY TOM FEENEY
The American Gold Star Mothers is a wreath-laying, hospital-visiting group of mostly elderly women who have lost a son or daughter at war. At meetings, its members rise to pledge allegiance to the flag, pray for peace and freedom, and ask God to help them bear "the cross of sorrow."
Through a history that dates to the years after World War I, the group has been scrupulously apolitical.
So when Judith C. Young of Moorestown began her term this year as the group's national president, she didn't expect the 20,000 hateful e-mails or the nasty phone messages.
She didn't think her organization would become a piñata for veterans groups, politicians and editorial writers. And she never imagined fretting over whether a group of gold star moms in their 70s and 80s would be heckled during a candlelight ceremony at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington.
"We've never had this much controversy," Young said last week as she sat in an arm chair in her Burlington County home and looked back at the first half of her term. "I'm the first president who's ever had to deal with it. Aren't I lucky?"
Two controversies erupted around her this year.
The first was of the group's own doing. A Filipino woman from New York was deemed ineligible for membership after her son was killed in Iraq because she did not meet the group's American citizenship requirement.
Newspapers and veterans groups denounced the Gold Star Mothers. The criticism was so heated, moms who attended a ceremony at the Vietnam Memorial were escorted by a veterans group to shield them from potential hecklers.
The second was a simple matter of mistaken identity.
Cindy Sheehan is the California woman who camped outside President Bush's Texas ranch this summer in an unsuccessful effort to force him to discuss the war that took her son's life.
Sheehan's anti-war group is called "Gold Star Families for Peace" -- close enough to "American Gold Star Mothers" to confuse just about everyone.
Opponents of the war began calling Gold Star Mothers' Washington headquarters asking for Sheehan, Young said. The supporters called to angrily denounce the mothers on the mistaken belief they had become anti-war activists.
"I know we have some members who are against the war and who support Cindy Sheehan," Young said. "But we're a nonprofit, completely nonpolitical group. It didn't matter. We had all these people calling our office to tell us we were slime balls and dirt bags. It was crazy."
IN THE BEGINNING
The Gold Star has been a symbol of loss since World War I. That's when families first hung service banners in their windows with blue stars for each member serving in the armed forces. If a family member was killed in action, the blue star was covered with a gold one.
In 1928, after much planning, 25 women who lost sons in World War I formed a group to support each other and organize volunteer work at veterans hospitals. They took the name American Gold Star Mothers, Inc.
Young paid the terrible price for admission in 1983, when her son, Jeff, 22, was one of 241 Americans killed in an attack on a Marine barracks in Beirut. She keeps her son's picture on the wall of her dining room and a piece of stone from the barracks under a glass coffee table in her living room. She honors his memory by pouring her time and talents into the American Gold Star Mothers.
She became president of the group in June and will remain president until next July's national convention in Mount Laurel.
The controversies that swamped the Gold Star Mothers at the beginning of Young's term have cooled.
Young supported a successful effort at the convention in June to change the charter so a woman whose son or daughter dies fighting for the U.S. armed forces need not be a citizen to join the Gold Star Mothers. Two noncitizens, but not the Filipino mother, have joined so far.
The angry phone calls and e- mails have stopped, Young said.
"When it got to be a big stink, I thought, 'Well, fixing this is easy as apple pie -- let's just change the bylaws,'" said Georgianna Carter- Krell of Miami, a member of the board of directors and mother of a soldier killed in Vietnam. "We had our pride hurt and some hard feelings about the change, but I think we came out of it OK."
The other problem was not as easily solved. Sheehan certainly has a right to call herself a gold star mother, Carter-Krell said, so long as she doesn't use the name of the American Gold Star Mothers.
Young said the group has done what it can to distance itself from Sheehan. They have issued press releases and posted a statement on their Web site disavowing any association with Gold Star Families for Peace.
Young hopes she now can focus on the problems she expected to confront as president -- dwindling membership chief among them.
The American Gold Star Mothers had as many as 22,000 members in the years after World War II and the Korean War. Young and her husband, Jack, have a photograph of a Gold Star Mothers gathering at a Camden County banquet hall during that era.
There were dozens of more mothers at that local gathering than at national conventions now, she said.
Membership today stands at about 1,000.
The group includes younger mothers who suffered their losses in Beirut, Grenada, Panama, the Persian Gulf, Somalia and Bosnia. But the relative peace after Vietnam caused membership to decline.
Most members are mothers of men and women who died in Vietnam. They are in their late 70s or older. Young, 65, is the first president whose son or daughter was killed after Vietnam.
The group has seen modest increases in membership recently as mothers of soldiers killed in Afghanistan and Iraq join.
Recruiting new members is touchy.
Young said she checks the Department of Defense Web site every day for news about casualties from New Jersey. When she finds one, she sends the parents a condolence card. She makes no effort to recruit the mother, but she does tuck a business card inside the envelope. That way, the mother will know how to contact her if she's interested.
"It's not a sad thing when we get together, not like a bereavement group," said Joan Curtin, of Howell, who received a card from Young after her son, Michael, became the first New Jerseyan to die in the war in Iraq, in March 2003. "I just like to go to be part of the kinship of women who know what I've gone through."
Curtin is among a few mothers from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq to join in New Jersey so far. Young thinks that will change with time.
"I've seen people handle the death of a child in different ways," she said. "Some want to plunge right in, but others are so consumed by grief they're not ready to go out and visit the local veterans hospital. We just want them to know that this group is here when they are ready."
Tom Feeney may be reached at (732) 761-8436 or firstname.lastname@example.org.