Gold Star Mothers continue the service of their fallen children

Maryland chapter, revived during decade of war, dedicate themselves to active duty personnel, veterans

May 12, 2012|By Matthew Hay Brown, The Baltimore Sun

BETHESDA — A mother arrives at the Red Cross office at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center on a mission for her son, a 23-year-old soldier and double amputee. He needs a back scratcher.

With her bright eyes and wide smile, volunteer Janice Chance gives her that and more — a reassuring rub on the arm and an offer to do anything else she can for the soldier, who is visiting the hospital for tests.

In a sense, Chance is here for her own son, too.

Marine Capt. Jesse Melton III, the oldest of Chance's three children, was killed by a roadside bomb in Afghanistan in 2008. Soon after his death, the Owings Mills woman began volunteering with the Red Cross at Walter Reed and in the emergency room at the Baltimore Veterans Affairs Medical Center.

Chance is one of 50 Maryland mothers who are honoring the memory of their fallen sons and daughters by tending to the needs of those still fighting, the wounded and the veterans.

Together, they have revived the long-dormant state chapter of the American Gold Star Mothers, a service organization made up exclusively of women who have lost children in the military.

Founded after World War I and widely recognized during World War II, the American Gold Star Mothers had been dwindling for decades. Now the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have brought a new generation of women to the organization.

Maryland is one of several states seeing a revival. Nationally, the organization now counts 2,000 women as members.

"We know that grief turned inward is destructive," Chance says. "But when you allow yourself to serve and support others, it aids with the healing process."

The mothers ship care packages to troops overseas; they volunteer with the VA, the USO and other organizations; they speak at colleges, before veterans groups and at Memorial Day gatherings.

"It's just keeping our kids' spirit alive in helping others," says Carol Roddy, president of the Maryland chapter.

A 'special connection'

Susan Kern, who manages volunteers for the VA Maryland Health Care System, says the gold star mothers bring a "special connection" to their work.

"They do have that love for country, that love for soldiers, that love for veterans," she says. "Who better to give quality care to our veteran patients than people that really respect and love what they did?"

The mothers call it the club that no one wants to join. But they also say they have found comfort in continuing the service of their sons and daughters, in staying connected to active members of the military, and in working alongside others who understand their loss.

"There is no one like another mother who knows how you feel," says Norma Luther, the organization's national president. "Particularly another gold star mother. Because losing an adult child is one of the hardest things in life."

American Gold Star Mothers traces its roots to World War I, and aWashington, D.C., woman whose son died in that conflict.

Lt. George Vaughn Seibold, an American aviator who volunteered with the British Royal Flying Corps, was killed in action over France in 1918. In her grief, Grace Darling Seibold reached out to other women who had lost sons in the military.

Together, they formed a group to visit and help care for hospitalized veterans. They took their name from the gold star that families hung in windows when mourning a service member.

Prominent during much of the 20th century, the organization had largely faded from public consciousness at the dawn of the 21st.

Group's revival

Then came the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Those conflicts have boosted membership to the highest levels in decades. The Maryland chapter, which was revived in 2007, has doubled its membership in five years.

Luther, the national president, lost her son, Army Capt. Glen P. Adams Jr., in a helicopter crash in Germany in 1988. She says gold star mothers aims to provide two kinds of service.

"First and foremost, we want to help our veterans, the wounded warriors, and the families behind these, because they are the ones who need our help," she says.

Second, she says, the group encourages any kind of community service.

"Whatever we can do, if we are made aware of the need, we try to fulfill that need ... anything that you do that helps your community and your fellow man," she says.

Roddy, the state president, heard about the organization growing up. She had an uncle who died in World War II, and her grandmother was a member.

Roddy's son, Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class David Sean Roddy, was killed by a roadside bomb in Iraq in 2006. When she tried to join the American Gold Star Mothers, they directed her to the Washington chapter. There was no active group in Maryland.

"I thought, 'There's got to be other mothers who might be interested in the Maryland area,'" the Abingdon woman says. So she went to the Washington office for guidance.

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