Patriotism, Sorrow Unite Military Moms

Times Staff Writer

At the Gold Star Manor in Long Beach, American flags wave from the balconies and Sousa marches enliven each morning's low-impact exercise classes.

Patriotic ardor is an everyday thing there.

When she gets out of bed, a former maid named Velma Burris salutes a photograph of her son, Joseph, a Marine lost in 1969 when his Jeep hit a land mine in Vietnam's Quang Tri province.

There was a time when more than 300 women who had lost children to war lived in apartments on the manor's 25 lush, landscaped acres -- the group's only residential facility.

But old age and decades of peace have thinned their ranks. Now, most of the manor's 348 units are occupied by low-income seniors with some connection to the military. Only 10 residents belong to Gold Star Mothers of America, a group none of them ever hoped to join.

Founded in 1928 by mothers of American doughboys killed in World War I, Gold Star Mothers reached a peak membership of 22,000 in the mid-1970s.

Today there are only about 1,200 Gold Star Mothers across the United States, with the most recent recruits stemming from casualties in Afghanistan.

"We don't want any new members, but we're getting them," said Dorothy Oxendine, a retired medical assistant who presides over the national group from its headquarters in a Washington, D.C., townhouse.

Oxendine's Marine son Willie died at 21 while on a reconnaissance patrol in 1968. She said helping veterans and other women through Gold Star Mothers helped her deal with the loss.

"You don't even have to mention your son," she said. "You don't have to say anything -- because everyone knows. Everyone's going through the same pain."

Through the years, the mothers have marched in innumerable parades, proudly wearing their trademark white capes and hats trimmed with gold.

They have helped out at Veterans Affairs hospitals, held receptions for troops and have given solemn talks on Memorial Day.

Just as important, they have been there for each other, dealing with an anguish as timeless as war itself.

"A waste, a total waste," said white-haired Evelyn Dean as she sat in the Long Beach manor's dining hall with a few other mothers.

"They fight over land and then 20 years later, they're friends again. Meanwhile, all these lost boys ... "

She didn't have to finish the thought. The other women murmured their agreement, a Greek chorus practiced in the verses of grief.

"I haven't gotten over it," said Minnie Crittendon, whose son Thomas Nelson Stiles had wanted to be a Marine since he was a little boy. "I don't think I ever will."

Varied Views

As a group, the mothers take no political positions. Some members decry the idea of war against Iraq, while others support it.

Whatever their views, a current of sorrow unites them.

"It's sad," said Alice Fraser, whose son James enlisted in the Army band at 17 and died from an infection he picked up in Germany.

"It's just so sad to see them marching off to war."

The women, who range in age from 73 to 91, recalled with terrible vividness the moment they qualified for membership in the Gold Star Mothers.

Their stories started differently -- here, a helicopter plummets; there, a sniper takes aim -- but they ended much the same, with a tight-lipped officer at the door and a sense of the world caving in.

"The night before, I had a dream about my son," Burris recalled. "I was chasing him over these hills, and every time I got to the top of one, he'd be at the top of the next. I never did catch up with him."

During World War I, families with children in the service were encouraged by the government to hang a banner with a blue star in their front windows.

When word came that a son had died on the battlefield, the blue star was exchanged for one of gold. A decade after the war, the mothers lobbied for veterans and their families.

The group won government-paid trips for thousands of broken-hearted mothers and widows to the European cemeteries where their sons were buried.

Black women were forced by the War Department to travel on segregated ships and stay in third-rate hotels, a slight that became an issue in Herbert Hoover's unsuccessful 1932 reelection bid.

Temporary Housing

The Gold Star Mothers flourished in World War II and afterward. In 1955, the group secured hundreds of bungalows built as temporary Navy housing in Long Beach.

Twenty years later, the old houses were razed and the mothers received $6.2 million in federal funds to build 10 three-story apartment buildings.

Run by a retired rear admiral named John Higginson, the manor is set behind a guarded gate in a rough Long Beach neighborhood. Inside, it resembles the tranquil green campus of a small college.

A recreation hall has men's and women's billiard rooms, with a swimming pool and Jacuzzi not far away. Paths meander by fountains and beneath shade trees, and residents tend their own gardens on dozens of elaborate plots.

Rents range up to about $450 a month for one-bedroom apartments, but even the bargain-basement cost isn't enough for many elderly women and, sometimes, their husbands, to decamp for Long Beach.

"So many of our mothers are getting old," Oxendine said. "They go out and try living at the manor, but they miss their families and friends and churches. They try, but then they leave."

Back home, their chapters might be eroding, like Bette Freeman's in Orange County.

"We get together when we can," Freeman said. "Twenty years ago, we adopted the spinal cord injury ward at the VA hospital in Long Beach. Today, I'm the only one who can go down and give them goodies on Valentine's Day or St. Patrick's Day. Whatever happens, though, we don't want to lose contact with our vets."

Serving those who served is a big part of being a Gold Star Mother. Some chapters help down-on-their-luck vets find medical care.

On Veterans Day, Gold Star Mothers who have made the pilgrimage to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial drop by headquarters to break out chocolate chip cookies and milk for members of a veterans group called Viet Now.

The tradition, now about 15 years old, started when a couple of vets attended a mothers banquet and declined the cheesecake dessert.

"We said, 'Well, some cookies would be nice,' " recalled Jim Stepanek, 55, an officer of Viet Now. "And we told them they'd be really good with a nice big glass of milk. So the ladies got hold of a waiter, and said: 'Bring our boys some milk and cookies!' "

Ever since, the Gold Star Mothers have had the veterans, now well into middle age, over for milk and cookies each Veterans Day.

"We asked them once how come they wanted to hang around with us," Stepanek said.

"And they answered us straight up, without any hesitation: 'In you guys, we see what our sons could have been.' "

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