Old pain mixes with new fears

Mother: A Joppatowne woman with two sons in the military worries that they might have to go to war while she remembers her brother's death in the Vietnam War.

September 29, 2001|By Joe Nawrozki | Joe Nawrozki,SUN STAFF

In her most anguished hour, Mary Jane Gerity needs to make that shrimp-and-tomato stir-fry for her son Joshua.

That's what mothers do - concentrate on basic acts of love while remaining brave when their boys are going off to war. Joshua, a member of the Maryland Air National Guard, was activated after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks; her other son, Charles, is patrolling the nation's coastline with the Coast Guard.

Some say two sons in harm's way is an investment no family should have to make. But as part of the military's reserve force, the two Gerity sons were activated shortly after hijacked jetliners slammed into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and a field in Pennsylvania, killing thousands.

The stir-fry "is Josh's favorite meal, and we'll have it one night before he leaves for the Middle East," said Gerity, who lives in Joppatowne with her husband, Jim, a furniture salesman.

The talk of war from Washington dredges up old pain for Gerity, 45, compounding her worries about her sons.

It seems like yesterday, Gerity said, that she and her family in Philadelphia got the news from Vietnam, before Christmas 1968. Her brother, Charles Walsh, a 19-year-old Marine, had been killed near Ca Lu when a "friendly" mortar round landed near him during a firefight.

As the sole surviving son of the family, Walsh, a marine rocket-launcher specialist, didn't have to be in a combat area, but he volunteered to be there.

Today, as American flags fly and patriotism abounds, Gerity's voice is tinged with caution.

"I am proud of our sons, because our country must take decisive military action now ... but I am petrified that something could happen to them," Gerity said. "I am stressed out every day, but I don't show it to them. They have enough to worry about."

Joshua, 27, is a flight-line fireman with the Maryland Air National Guard. Charles, 28, is working 48-hour shifts aboard a Coast Guard patrol boat off the East Coast. He and his wife are expecting their first child next month.

Gerity asked that locations where her sons are serving, dates and other details not be published.

"The terrorists read the newspapers and watch television news reports very carefully," she said.

Gerity knows that in this unconventional conflict, truck drivers, clerks and helicopter mechanics will be as vulnerable as anyone.

"I keep faith and go one day at a time," Gerity said this week outside the Rosedale office where she works. "I have to maintain myself until Josh goes overseas."

Composure under such conditions is part of an unwritten code that dates from at least World War II: Parents put on a happy face for their soldiers, and those serving in combat zones rarely write home about their hardships or the horrors of war.

Katherine Mannion, a former president of American Gold Star Mothers Inc., a national organization of women who have lost children in combat, said she doesn't know of any instances in which parents burdened their sons or daughters in Vietnam with troubling news from the homefront.

Mannion, 80, who lives in Bel Air, lost her son, Todd, in a Viet Cong ambush in December 1966. A graduate of Calvert Hall College High School, where he played varsity baseball, he planned to try out as a catcher with several professional teams upon his return home.

"Todd never, never wrote home to complain or say how scared he might be," said Mannion, who headed American Gold Star Mothers in 1980-1981. "I never wrote him about deaths we had in the family, other local boys dying in the war or how worried we were."

Mannion experienced one moment that other mothers of combat soldiers have spoken of: "I watched from my front door as he walked to meet an Army bus, and I turned to my husband, Gus, and told him that Barry Duff was the most recent neighborhood boy to die in Vietnam.

"I told him my Todd would be next. I couldn't shake the feeling," she said.

As Gerity has watched the preparations for a possible protracted war against an elusive enemy, pride has replaced the anger and mistrust she felt toward the government after the Vietnam War.

Still, after witnessing the mistakes and deceptions of Vietnam, "I have this cynical side to me," Gerity said. [Osama] bin Laden has his caves in Afghanistan that nobody seems to think important; the Vietnamese Communists had their tunnels.

"And it is truly nice to see all the patriotic flags displayed outside houses, offices and on cars.

"But I wonder," Gerity said, "if those flags will still be there when the government-issued caskets filled with dead young Americans start coming home."

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