GAIL WHITE They're Gold Star Mothers, and they'd rather not be
In 1918, the early days of World War I, President Woodrow Wilson acted upon a request made by the Women's Committee of the Council of National Defenses. The council suggested that instead of women wearing mourning attire for those who had died in the war, they should wear a black band on their left arm.
The band would bear a deep blue star for every member of the family in the service. If a young man or woman died, a gold star would be superimposed over the blue.
Thus, the term Gold Star Mother was formed.
Membership, unfortunately, expanded during World War II and again during the Korean War. Vietnam arrived and the number of American Gold Star Mothers, once again, rose.
"Gold Star Mothers is a group no mother wants to belong to," says Jeanne Penfold, national service officer for the American Gold Star Mothers in Washington, D.C.
Today, the prayers of the women of this group are that no other mothers will suffer their loss.
Helen Phillips of Poland holds that prayer very close to her heart.
Remembering a life: Helen's son, Dean, was a paratrooper with the Army's 101st Airborne Division in Vietnam from 1967-1968.
Dean returned home from his tour of duty. But his body brought Agent Orange home with him. Dean died from cancer in 1985, leaving a wife, a 12-year-old daughter, a 2-year-old son -- and a Gold Star Mother.
Walking down into the basement of Helen's home, I pause on the step landing.
A large photograph of a handsome, smiling, young man catches my eye. There is a distinct twinkle in his eyes as he holds a lighted match in front of his face.
"That is Dean," Helen explains. "The lit match stands for peace. Dean loved peace."
Sitting on the basement couch, I look around the room. Dean's two Silver Stars, two Bronze Stars, Air Medal, Commendation Medal, Purple Heart and various other merit badges of honor hang on the wall encased under glass.
Various pictures, letters and proclamations regarding his gallantry fill the walls as well. On a shelf, also encased in glass, sits the flag that covered his coffin when he was buried in Arlington National Cemetery.
A hero's mark: Helen brings out scrapbooks of information and memories from her son's life.
"It's jumbled," she explains. "I don't want it to be manicured. It's not a child's album."
From the jumbled scrapbooks, Helen pulls page after page of commendations, memorials and letters from high officials and close friends.
"He was remarkable," I say, as I begin to understand the magnitude of this man's impact.
"His life still overwhelms me," Helen replies. "The fact that he could do so much in so little time."
A line from a page of the Congressional Record catches my eye.
U.S. Sen. John Glenn of Ohio wrote of Dean as "a genuine American hero."
One genuine American hero, multiplied by hundreds of thousands of young men and women.
Finding comfort: Dean's life after Vietnam paralleled his heroic actions in battle. He fought tirelessly for veterans' rights, becoming the attorney-adviser to the administrator of Veterans Affairs in the nation's capital.
Most Gold Star Mothers never got to see what their heroes would become.
The loss of Dean sent Helen searching for comfort.
"I was looking, seeking for something, someone to relate to," she recalls.
She found her solace with the Gold Star Mothers. Unable to put into words the comfort she felt, Helen says simply, "I am not alone."
The past generation has seen a drop in the number of Gold Star Mothers. Recently, new names have been added.
Without exception, the members of this group have one unanimous wish.
"We hope, someday, there will be no more Gold Star Mothers," Penfold says.