Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Blue Star Mothers: When Your Child is at War

Cousin Cecil, at a Battle of the Bulge Reunion
It was decades after World War II that I finally asked my great-aunt Ruth about the stickers affixed to her apartment door.  By then, the two ovals, white with a red border, were  tattered at the edges, but the blue star in their center looked new. I figured she still dusted the decals occasionally.

 “They’re from the War,” she told me. World War II, I should have known—as if Korea hadn’t occurred and the conflict in Viet Nam wasn’t raging. “I was a Blue Star Mother.”
She explained to me that women with sons in the military could proudly display a blue star on their windows and doors. And there were pins to wear, as well. Gold stars were reserved for grieving parents who had lost a child in the war. “You never wanted to be a gold star mother.“ She shuddered.

Her older son Walter, a Marine, had been in the bloody water off the coast of Normandy and landed in France on D-Day. Amazingly, he was also present at the landing in Iwo Jima. His younger brother, Irwin, had served bravely in Italy.  At the time of the war, my great-aunt was in midlife... and widowed. She had loving family nearby and good friends for support. Bottom line, though, she shouldered her burden by herself.
Another cousin, Cecil, fought in the Battle of the Bulge and spent time in a German prison camp. Now in his eighties, he's active in groups that include buddies from the war and honor those currently in harm’s way. He doesn’t talk much about what he personally endured.  Most of the former servicemen in my family don’t revisit that time, even with those closest to them. But the wives of some report nightmares persist, even 60 years later. And Walter’s daughter says it was only shortly before his death that he started to “talk of those days and refer to the other men.”

Our family escaped the Korean conflict personally unscathed. But Viet Nam hit us hard. One cousin was injured and lost hearing as a result. A second, who came home safely, developed a rare, lethal form of cancer not long after. Oncologists attributed it to exposure to Agent Orange that saturated his area of operation. He died in his early thirties, leaving a young son behind.
Still, our young men and women go to war. Still, mothers and fathers—at midlife or beyond, when the burdens of parenting should be lifting—are living with the most visceral fear: that of a parent for a child in danger. And after the homecomings, if a son or daughter is dealing with physical, mental or emotional fallout from combat, those moms and dads stand with wives, husbands and children to help in the mending process.

So this week, as we honor those who serve our country in the military, let us also remember the spouses who keep families intact back home and the parents who wait, pray and help pick up the pieces afterwards. Blue stars go out to all of you.
Toby Devens


  1. Toby-

    I loved your piece; it really resonated with me.

    My grandmother was a gold star mother. She had 3 sons, 2 of whom served in World War II.. Uncle Heshie was a POW guard at a prison camp in Virginia. Uncle Benny enlisted as a private in the Army and mustered out as a Captain. He was in the European Theatre and fought in the Battle of the Bulge and in D-Day. He was very charismatic, and people he met overseas were very kind to him. That’s one of the reasons that I’ve been sending books to deployed troops ever since the first Gulf War...paying it forward in memory of all the people who were kind to my uncle. In case anyone is interested, they can contact Operation Paperback; I’ve worked with them since 2004. Www.OperationPaperback.org

    Binnie Syril Braunstein

  2. My father was in the Pacific in WWII. We lived in an apartment that was on the second floor of a private home. You opened an outside door at the bottom of the stairs and walked up. I remember my father coming home for the first time after arriving back at Ft. Meade and my mom rushing down the stairs to hug him. To me, he was a stranger.

  3. This struck a deep cord with me. I had not heard of either blue or gold star mothers, though my own grandmother was, sad to say, a gold star mother. Her oldest son, my father, was not only killed in a plane crash in WWII, but a WEEK before I, the first of her grandchildren, was born. She never spoke to me of the horrible tragedy, but clearly tried to make up for my loss by loving me as mightily as she could. My grandfather, and my father's brothers and sister also helped pick up the pieces and kept my ties with them strong their whole lives. Finally, my mother made sure I never forgot the father I never even saw and that I appreciated what a wonderful person he was. So, I will certainly join you in remembering all those left behind who can make a difference by bravely, wisely carrying on.

  4. I can honestly say that I would not exist were it not for the efforts of those who fought WWII. My father, the last survivor of his family was imprisoned in Auschwitz. Without the efforts of those brave men and women, Hitler's Final Solution would surely have been more fully implemented and my father would have perished. The woman who gave birth to my husband was also a concentration camp survivor, liberated by their efforts. My father in law was a mechanic on one of the planes that flew over Normandy. During the course of the war, he replaced their gunner who was killed in action and when their pilot was killed, it was he who brought the plane down safely. He rarely spoke of his heroism but I owe a debt of gratitude to men like him who fought and then went on to build lives and families. I pray that today's vets can overcome the challenges that are the legacy of their service and that we will never forget the debt that we owe everyone who has stepped forward in service to our country.

  5. Nice family story, Binnie. I second your motion to visit the website of Operation Paperback. They have a great FAQ page that explains it all. Thanks for alerting us to this fine program.

  6. These milestone memories stay with us forever, don't they, Ruth? Do you recall what you felt when you saw him? I assume your mother prepared you for his homecoming, but you had to be very young at the time and here was this new person in your life.It must have been quite an adjustment for the entire family.

    1. I didn't feel much. I was just WATCHING. Then the next morning, I came into her bedroom looking for him and he wasn't there. He had to get up early and go back to Fr. Meade, but he'd come to Baltimore to spend the night w/ her. But I remember the look on her face--which I didn't understand at the time and wondered about it. This woman had just made love w/ her husband after 18 months apart, and she'd had a very nice night, thank you very much.
      Yes, I guess I was three--almost four. A couple nights later, my mom and grandmother went to Ft. Meade to pick him up and left me w/ Grandpa, who was NOT good with kids.

  7. Your remarkable story--so beautifully told-- had me swallowing back tears, Nancy. A tragic loss, yet the family rallying around you is heartwarming. And I admire your mother so much for being the keeper of the flame for your father.

  8. An amazing and beautiful tribute to our troops then and now, Pearl. But also to all who endured the horrors of the Holocaust--those who survived and those who did not. I have attended conferences held by groups of child Holocaust survivors and children of Holocaust survivors. The stories are wrenching; the courage, fortitude and resilence within are remarkable. And no doubt, without American intervention (late though it was), millions more would have perished.
    In my house of worship we say a memorial prayer for American service men and women of all faiths who lost their lives in Iraq, Afghanistan and other war zones since our last service.

  9. More about my Cousin Walter who participated in the D-Day landing. His daughter reports that those men waited "an extra night out in the ocean while Gen. McArthur changed the mission and held them back until it was the right time for the invasion."

    She says, "We did talk about Normandy a bit after 'Saving Private Ryan' came out and he told me that although the movie depiction was amazing, it was nowhere near as horrific as the actual landing and mission."

    He shared very little about his experiences,as is the case with many veterans. His daughter says, most of it "went to the grave with him, sadly, or maybe for the better."

    Interestingly, the cousin Walter I knew was warm, charming, upbeat, very bright and had a contagious laugh and marvelous sense of humor. I had no idea until recently that he'd been a Marine with a remarkable war record. There was nothing in his personality or demeanor to suggest that he'd served in two of the bloodiest battles of World War II.