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A club of grief, back in action

Gold Star Mothers, who've lost a child in military service, hoped to fade into history. But new wars have brought new members.

March 13, 2007|Faye Fiore | Times Staff Writer

Washington — THE house is so quiet you can hear the clocks tick, except on those weekends when the mothers come in from around the country. Then the clocks are drowned out by all the chatter as everyone takes turns in the kitchen.

Emogene Cupp, 87 -- her boy Bobby stepped on a land mine near Da Nang and was buried on his 21st birthday -- makes a pea salad that is out of this world.

Georgianna Carter-Krell, 75 -- her 19-year-old son, Bruce, threw himself on a grenade in Vietnam to save his buddies -- is famous for her fried snapper. She catches the fish herself and brings it all the way from Florida in a carry-on with her makeup bag.

This brick four-story home in the chic Dupont Circle neighborhood is the clubhouse for a sorority no woman wants to join: The only qualification for membership is to lose a child in military service.

For a while, it looked as though the American Gold Star Mothers, which has tended to grieving women for eight decades, was on the brink of extinction. Enrollment pushed to 30,000 by two world wars had shrunk to 900-plus, most of them little old ladies in their trademark white suits and two-cornered garrison caps.

The thinning of the ranks wasn't a bad thing, or so thought Betty Jean Pulliam, the group's 81-year-old president. Years of peacetime had reduced the number of sons and daughters killed in action the way her Dale was taken by Vietnamese mortar fire on Mother's Day 1967. And that is exactly the way the mothers had hoped their beloved organization would fade into the history books, happily rendered obsolete.

But the Iraq and Afghanistan wars have killed more than 3,500 U.S. soldiers, sailors and Marines, creating a wave of newly qualified Gold Star candidates. Now, the women who sent their sons to Korea, Vietnam and other battlefields -- most well into their 80s -- feel a renewed sense of duty to keep on, sustaining the memories of their lost children and consoling a new generation of bereft mothers.

Pulliam makes sure homeless veterans get a dignified burial, complete with a flag-draped coffin, an honor guard and a 21-gun salute. When there is no family to receive the flag, she takes it home with her.

Ethel Pedrick, 80, sews 150 Christmas stockings every year on the machine in her Alameda, Calif., home; on Dec. 28, she starts the next year's batch. She does it for the men at the San Francisco Veterans Affairs Medical Center, but also for her Charles, who was killed while loading a wounded comrade onto a helicopter in Vietnam. He would have turned 60 this year.

Judith Young -- at 67, she's one of the young ones -- sits anonymously in the back row of any military funeral she can get to from her home in Moorestown, N.J., just to pay her respects. She lost her Jeffrey in the 1983 Marine barracks bombing in Beirut and remembers being in no mood to have some stranger approach her about joining a club. So she follows up with a sympathy card and a note saying the Gold Stars are there, if needed.

But old age is catching up with a group once so vital that Franklin D. Roosevelt -- and every president since -- declared the last Sunday in September Gold Star Mothers Sunday.

The old guard is dying almost as fast as the new recruits are joining. There are about 145 chapters sprinkled across the country, but some have as few as one member. Just when a new chapter of Iraq moms popped up in Tennessee, the Toledo group fell apart as its five remaining mothers moved into nursing homes. There are no Nevada chapters anymore; those mothers have to join what's left in California. And one 85-year-old woman is single-handedly representing the entire state of Delaware.

"Most people today don't know what a Gold Star mother is," Pulliam said from the house on the outskirts of Wichita, Kan., where she raised four children and now lives alone with a Pomeranian named Bubba.

Once the governor invited her to Topeka to help dedicate the Dwight D. Eisenhower State Office Building. She wore her whites, of course, and the young lady seating people asked what branch of the service she was in.

"I'm an American Gold Star mother," Pulliam answered proudly.

"What's that?" the girl asked.

"Well that's the problem, honey, nobody knows."

*

THE group was founded by Grace Seibold, whose son, George, went missing in action in World War I. It was named for the gold stars families hung in their windows to honor a son or daughter who died in the service.

The Gold Stars have always seen their mission as twofold: comfort one another and turn grief to action, reaching out to American veterans by volunteering in hospitals, halfway houses and anywhere else they are needed.

In their heyday, they were a busy bunch. Pulliam's Wichita chapter met like clockwork one afternoon a month at the local ladies club. They put on pots of coffee and somebody always baked a pie.

"Each of us had something to be a-doin', sometimes making little crafts for a craft show," she remembers.

Today there are 13 Gold Star mothers left in Kansas.

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