Sunday, September 30, 2012

Happy Gold Star Mothers Day

Celebrated: in the United States, since 1936

The first headline I saw this morning was that the death toll of U.S. troops in Afghanistan has reached 2,000. It's a bad number, but it's just a number. Too many people will see that headline without stopping to think about the effect of those 2,000 deaths on 2,000 families: mothers, fathers, spouses, children, a number that quickly gets too high to count.

The American Gold Star Mothers society was founded in 1928 through the efforts of Grace Darling Seibold, whose son George was shot down over France in 1918. That year (1918), President Woodrow Wilson endorsed the practice of replacing traditional mourning attire for war-bereaved families with a black band adorned by a gold star for every family member killed in action. Almost every American family would have been wearing some indicator of mourning in 1918, not only because of the war but also because of the flu pandemic, which killed 43,000 soldiers by itself. Since its founding in 1928, the American Gold Star Mothers have expanded their membership to include the mothers of soldiers killed in the Second World War, Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan and countless other military operations.

Once upon a time, and not so long ago, everyone in the United States knew what a gold star meant. In the 39 years since the end of the draft, our nation's defense has become something that involves only a small group of Americans, and it's become much too easy for the rest of the country to ignore it. The occasional rally or halftime show "for the troops" is almost worse than pointless; it lets people feel good about "supporting the troops" without doing anything that requires effort.

If I sound sharp about this, it's because I feel sharp. My father was a career Naval officer, and continues to serve (at 70) as an ordinary seaman with the Military Sealift Command. My nephew serves in the Air Force, and I have cousins in the Coast Guard and the Navy. We are a military family, and yet when my own son was thinking about a military career a few years ago, I couldn't help feeling dismayed. Who wants any child to choose a job that deliberately puts him or her in harm's way? It is an impossibly complex tangle of emotions: pride, fear, anxiety and even a little anger — because the responsibility for our nation's defense is not equally shared.

The military has always been one of our society's few true avenues of social and economic mobility, and possibly the only true American meritocracy. But here in Maine, at the northern end of Appalachia, I see that our system allows the wealthiest segments of our society to outsource our national defense to the economically disadvantaged. And that makes me angry.

Incredibly, the effects of bereavement on military families are only now being studied. The first major scientific study is now underway here, conducted by the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences. The study looks specifically at the effects of loss on military families who have lost members since September 11, 2001; if you're a member of one of those families, see about participating in the study here.

And if you see a woman wearing a gold star, stop to say hello. Ask about her son or daughter. Say how sorry you are for her loss, and ask if you can do anything to help. Don't forget to say thank you.

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