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Page 47
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Gold Star Mothers

By Tom Gery

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I stood there with watery eyes, a thickening throat, and feelings of sadness. Was this a flashback? My war was more than a half-century old. Did it have something to do with my failure to listen a lifetime ago?

I was on holiday. The excursion included a B&B accommodation. Although the host was out when I arrived the key was available. I fiddled with the antique front door lock not seeing the symbol of wartime sacrifice on the wall near the doorway.

The circa 1840's red brick farmhouse included fireplaces in every room, wide plank floors, high ceilings, and a memorial. Standing in the living room I noticed the symbol not seen on the way in. A son of America had lived within these old walls; in his place an award of honor no one wants, the Gold Star Service Flag.

An antique display cabinet held the memories. My body felt a shiver of emotion as I learned what happened to a nineteen-year-old infantryman. Prominently centered was the photograph of a handsome youth in uniform. The Tropical Lightning patch of the 25th Infantry Division on his sleeve. Elements of the Division were in Mosul, Iraq in August 2005. To the left, I saw the tale's tragic end, a Veteran's Burial Flag. Custom dictates the flag be given to the next of kin.

The soldier's story continued. A group picture of young men in battledress, smiling, happy, radiating a gung-ho message. Next, the image of GI's mugging for the camera while sitting on top of a five million dollar Stryker fighting vehicle. The picture was a symbol of national blood and treasure. To the right, the coveted Combat Infantryman Badge earned by "grunts" who fought in active ground combat. There was a Bronze Star awarded for heroism and a purple heart adjacent to the patriotic symbol given to the fallen warrior's family. I heard more from the mother herself. On a deadly day in the summer of '05, a sniper's bullet took her oldest of two children, the only son.

In 1969, I refused to talk to a different Gold Star Mother. Years later I regretted the callous indifference. The times and circumstances were different then. I was 21, recently returned from Vietnam with separation papers in hand. Once again a civilian I thought the horrors of war were behind me.

The Gold Star Mother's son was an Army helicopter pilot. I was part of the low-level scout team searching for the enemy. His aircraft was hit by several rounds. He crashed in flames. My pilot took us in to pick him and the observer up. He was on fire, badly injured. Fourteen days later the unit's command conducted a memorial service.

The deceased pilot's parents learned in a letter from the new platoon leader of my part in the rescue. They wrote to me in Vietnam; the letter arrived at my home. I was shocked. They lived thirty miles away.

These parents were reaching out to someone who had been with their son at the end. They assumed we were buddies. They were expressing gratitude for my actions that day. Words of grief were in the letter, they wanted to meet me to say it in person and hear about their boy. They longed for some closure.

They did not have the full picture. I was not their son's friend because of his rank, nor did I like him. I saw him shoot at innocent civilians like a little boy with a BB gun shooting birds for fun. He seemed to disdain anyone not white. I wanted no part of meeting his relatives. What could I say? They were desperate to fill in some blanks for themselves and his wife and baby. Survivors hold on to memories; to grieve is to remember. He was their hero. There were medals awarded posthumously. The memory was to be honored and I was part of the memory, like it or not. I cared little for their memories or their grief. I ignored the second letter. Years later after rereading the letters I felt disgusted for my behavior. Was I feeling guilt when looking at the story of the PFC from the 25th Infantry Division?

My wife and I spent a couple of nights at the B&B which included a full country-style breakfast. We being her only guests she had some time to talk. I drank coffee and listened while she cooked and spoke about her hero. We both were tearful. I felt that lump in my throat again. Was I feeling her sorrow or my regret?

His mom drew a vivid picture of the PFC's life before the Army. He was a good kid, a proficient student, and part of his tightly knit rural community. They were a Christian family involved with their church. Military service was part of his mother's family history; uncles in WWII and Korea. I saw photographs of men in Class A uniforms with ribbons and medals. They were his role models. As a little guy, he had a GI Joe figure with a uniform and toy gun. The PFC enlisted after graduation. The parents hoped he wouldn't but respected his decision; their love and emotional support never wavered.

Although the broken heart would never be whole, the military funeral at Arlington gave her some comfort. The Gold Star Mother felt honored; the dreadful sacrifice recognized. "The Old Guard" service members were present: casket team; firing party; bugler. The grieving woman appreciated the customs and traditions guiding the process of a nation saying goodbye to her boy: The flag-draped across the casket later given to her; taps played; three volleys fired; three spent shell casings; three words - duty, honor, country.

The sixteenth anniversary of her soldier son's death was approaching. So was the fourteenth anniversary of her husband's death. He could not overcome the loss of his namesake. She grieved for two. This time I listened and had my answers.

Tom Gery served in the US Army from January 1968 to September 1969 with a tour of duty in Vietnam '68-'69. He is a retired social worker, married with two adult children and two grandchildren.

Gold Star Mother Ann Pine at Dewey Canyon IV, May 12, 1982.

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