Georgie Carter Krell was at home when two military officers knocked at her door. She knew immediately that her worst nightmare had come true.
Her son Bruce, an adventurous 19-year-old who had joined the Marines two years earlier, had been killed in Vietnam when he threw himself on a grenade to save his comrades. He was buried on Aug. 25, 1969—his mother's birthday—and posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor for his final heroic act.
Krell had never heard of Gold Star Mothers, a national organization of moms whose children have died while serving in the U.S. military, until she was invited to join by a neighbor who also lost a son in the Vietnam War. She resisted at first. "I wasn't ready to," says Krell, 77, of Miami, Fla., who gave in to her friend's insistence a year later and signed up to attend a gathering.
To her surprise, she made several lifelong friends in the Gold Star Mothers' Miami chapter. "We understood each other," says Krell, who is serving her second term as president of the Washington, D.C.-based group. "It was kind of a silent understanding: 'I know what happened. I know how you feel.' Unless you've walked in my shoes, you don't know what it's like to lose a son or a daughter."
A common bond
The term "gold star mothers" was first used during World War I, when families who lost sons in the military began flying gold service flags outside homes, churches and schools. The phrase soon came to designate any mother whose child died in war. In 1928, after years of planning, 25 moms met in Washington, D.C., to establish an official organization called American Gold Star Mothers. By the end of the first year, 65 women had joined. Today, the group has some 2,000 members in 175 chapters across the nation.
In its early years, it wasn't as easy for Gold Star Mothers to reach out to other moms. Today, email, the Internet and timely news reports have changed all that, making military deaths much more public. Members who hear about a fallen serviceman or woman often attend the funeral, leaving their contact information so the grieving mom can get in touch when she's ready. Most chapters send condolence letters, hold monthly meetings, and attend local and national events honoring veterans. The group is deliberately low-key so as not to intrude on a family's private grief.
Krell, who proudly wears her Gold Star pin whenever possible, often comforts moms much younger than herself. "We're mothers first of all," she says. "You can look into (a mother's) eyes and know that she needs somebody to put their arms around her and say, 'I love you, and we'll work together. Tell me what I can do for you.' It's a common bond. It's the same no matter what age you are."
Help with healing
Good-looking, witty and highly intelligent, Mary Jane Vandegrift's son Matthew was determined to join the Marine Corps despite a football knee injury. "People were just drawn to him because of his personality," says Vandegrift, a flight attendant from Littleton, Colo. (pop. 40,340). "He was the type of person that made everybody feel comfortable."
On April 21, 2008, less than a year after he left for Iraq as an infantry officer, 1st Lt. Matthew Vandegrift, 28, died in Basra from internal wounds sustained when a makeshift bomb exploded under the Humvee in which he was riding.
Vandegrift's husband, John, met her at the Houston airport with the tragic news, and a fellow airline employee, who happened to be a Gold Star Mother, counseled the couple in a private room. "It was so helpful, just the thought that she had been through this, that she had lost a son and that there was an organization called Gold Star Mothers," Mary Jane Vandegrift recalls.
Several members of the new Colorado Springs chapter came to Matthew's funeral and, a month later, Vandegrift attended a Gold Star Mothers picnic for the families of children killed in the current Middle East conflicts. Despite the stark realities shared by the other women-the pain never goes away, they told her, but time lessens the intensity-"being with similar people that have gone through the same thing is such an uplifting thing," Vandegrift says. "You know you're not alone in what's happened to you."
Just a few months after Matthew's death, Vandegrift found herself sympathizing with another Gold Star Mother whose son had died in Iraq. "If there's anything I can do to make it better, or if you just want to talk," she told her new friend, "I'm here for you." The ability to help someone else aids her own healing process, she says. "I feel it is very important to support the people that are new to this. You've been through it, and you know exactly how hard it is for them."
Unlike Krell and Vandegrift, it took Jo O'Neal more than two decades to join Gold Star Mothers. Sitting at her daughter's kitchen table in Fort Oglethorpe, Ga. (pop. 6,940), she spreads out black and white photographs of her son, Pfc. Steve Lance. In his high school graduation picture, he's wearing a suit and crisp white shirt. In another photo, he's handsomely dressed in an Army uniform.
After all these years—39 to be exact—O'Neal, a member of the Scenic Area Chapter of Gold Star Mothers, still chokes up when she recalls what happened to Steve, a baseball fanatic and the only boy among her four children. Artistic and funny, he was 19 when the Army drafted him in 1969. He had been in Vietnam just 30 days when his squadron ran out of ammunition and was attacked by enemy troops in Thua Thien Province on May 1, 1970. His funeral was held on Mother's Day.
It wasn't until 1998 that O'Neal learned about Gold Star Mothers while visiting Chattanooga, Tenn., to see the Vietnam Traveling Memorial Wall during one of its stops. She was so touched by their mission that she formed the Scenic Area Chapter and became its first president. Most of the current members, like O'Neal, lost children in the Vietnam War. They now attend military funerals, make phone calls, and send cards to younger moms whose children have died in Iraq, Afghanistan and other countries.
In 2004, several of the women traveled to Vietnam to visit the spots where their sons were fatally wounded. At each site, they took turns stepping in the dirt and then smoothing out the soil, symbolically sealing the already tight bond between them. For some, the trip brought closure to a difficult, painful journey.
"Sometimes we get together and we just cry, and sometimes we don't," O'Neal says of her Gold Star sisters. "It's just wonderful. It's just a warm feeling to know that we've all shared in the same thing."
For more information about Gold Star Mothers, call (202) 265-0991 or visit www.goldstarmoms.com.