Sewing the gold-star flags they hope never to receive

Tribute: At APG, spouses gather to make banners to honor the fallen armed forces members in Iraq.

April 10, 2003|By Lane Harvey Brown | Lane Harvey Brown,SUN STAFF

Ann Sherman Wolcott, At Aberdeen Proving Ground's chapel yesterday, the meeting room was humming with three dozen military wives who were ironing, measuring, cutting and sewing more than 200 yards of fabric into red and white flags.

Others, including a few children, were painting wooden rods to hold the flags. And at the end of the assembly line, Elaine Valentin sat down at her sewing machine to realize a dream: to make a flag for every family who has lost a loved one in Iraq or the war on terrorism.

Two years ago, Valentin, a military wife and granddaughter, started sewing Service Flags, a fixture in the windows of soldiers' homes during World War I and World War II, to honor her husband and grandfather. She began making them for friends and family members who asked.

But the recent conflicts inspired her to take her sewing to a wider group.

"Nobody who loses a service member should have to pay for a gold-star flag," she said.

In the old days, families made the flags themselves, with a blue star for each member of the family in the military service adorning a white field; if one of them was killed, a gold star was placed over the blue one.

Over the years, the tradition faded and, except for historical societies, few remembered the once-prevalent symbol. But after the start of the war in Iraq, interest has been renewed in the simple sign of honor.

On April 1, Congress passed a resolution calling on military families to display service flags and for all Americans to recognize their importance.

"Most of us who are Gold Star Mothers proudly display gold-star banners as a symbol of our sacrifice to this country," said Ann Sherman Wolcott, national first vice president of the American Gold Star Mothers, based in Washington.

The group, founded in 1928, is open to mothers who lost a child in World War I, World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, and subsequent military operations including Beirut, Panama, the Persian Gulf and Bosnia.

Wolcott, whose 18-year-old son Rex was killed in an ambush four months after arriving in Vietnam, said the resolution and renewed interest are good to see. She said she has not run across other women working on a project like the one Valentin and the Aberdeen wives have undertaken.

Yesterday at the APG chapel there were so many volunteer ironers and sewers that they kept blowing fuses in the electrical system. As conversations rose and faded across the bright, white room, the rhythmic bump of scissors on the table top sounded much like a percolator.

The wives who turned out are members of the APG Military and Civilian Spouses Club. President Beth Roussel, one of the few wives whose husbands have been deployed, said the idea to help Valentin "steam-rolled very quickly."

The group, which raises money for scholarships and charity, has donated $500 to her business, Roussel said.

While the support for the flag-making was very encouraging to Roussel, the day was emotional. "They are hard feelings -- that you hope to never be the recipient of" a flag, she said.

Karen Chambers and Unhui Krieger started on opposite ends of red strips, cutting toward the middle, sharing stories of a friendship found at Aberdeen and built on a mutual love of Korea, where Krieger was born and both women lived with their soldier-husbands.

"We do cry a lot," Kreiger said as she worked. Her nephew is in Iraq. While few of these women's husbands have been deployed, everyone, it seems, knows someone who is there.

"We all appreciate the fact that this could be our husbands," added Melanie Galinger.

Kati Haggard, 10, of suburban Atlanta, who is in Aberdeen with her mother, Sherri, to visit friends, was sad and glad to be there yesterday to help make a flag to honor her friend, Pfc. Diego Fernando Rincon, 19, from Fort Stewart, Ga., who was killed after a car bomb exploded at an Army checkpoint.

Rincon had been Kati's gymnastics coach.

Amy Rowell, a club member who is serving as the Haggards' host, didn't know about the connection between her childhood friend's daughter and Rincon when she planned to bring Kati to the event. She said she thought, "We'll go over. It won't be Six Flags, but it would be a good way to be involved that Kati would remember.

"Then she told me about Diego. It just touched my heart."

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