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