Their hope would be to have the mothers of this war step in to keep things going, and some have.
But signing up new members is difficult. The Defense Department does not release the addresses of soldiers killed in action, only their hometowns. The mothers scan their local newspapers for death notices and try to track down family phone numbers through mortuaries and the white pages. (They don't care much for computers, e-mail or the Internet.) The detective work is harder than it used to be because a mother's name isn't always the same as her child's, which almost never happened in their day.
About 8% of the newly eligible mothers have joined -- roughly 280 in three years. But about as many veteran mothers passed away in that same span of time. The pool of experienced Gold Stars is so low that the executive board passed a bylaw allowing past national presidents to serve again because they were running out of qualified candidates.
The new recruits aren't always ready to dive into administrative duties so soon after a painful loss. The older mothers call them "card-carriers," because many can't manage much else.
The Gold Stars' tradition-bound ways can also be frustrating and mystifying to a new generation of mothers. Many women today work full time and are only free to meet at night, when the older ones don't like to go out. Sometimes the younger ones wait months for membership cards because the older ones forget to send them out.
Then there are the white suits and caps. Gold Stars have been wearing them since 1928. People occasionally mistake the mothers for nurses, but they don't mind. After all, if they were standing around the Vietnam Wall in their jeans, who would notice?
But most of the new mothers find the white suits dowdy.
They hate the hats.
"Some of them want to change everything," Pulliam says, though she has to admit she understands the hat objection. "It's OK as long as you keep it on, but if you take it off, your hair stands up just like the hat."
Still, a tradition is a tradition, and Ethel Pedrick, like many of her Gold Star comrades, has worked hard to hold to as many as she can. Recently she won an award for 10,000 hours of service at the VA hospital on a bluff overlooking the Golden Gate Bridge. This last year she sewed up a storm and made 180 Christmas stockings, exceeding her goal.
She can also whip up a ditty bag in 10 minutes -- little pouches she sends off to the reaches of Afghanistan and Iraq for the soldiers to carry lip balm and other personal items. Volunteers drop off the fabric, and she puts it in the basement where it seems to multiply unassisted.
"You know what happens to rabbits?" she observes. "Well, it happens to fabric, too."
PEDRICK is old enough to know that some things never change. For instance, she is still glad she married Henry 62 years ago. "I've never thought of divorcing him. I've thought of killing him a few times, but divorce is completely out of the picture."
The other thing that never changes is how much she misses Charles, even though it's been 40 years since he enlisted to be with his younger brother, who was drafted. One came home and the other didn't. You can never get over losing a son, but you can get through it -- the other mothers helped her see that.
She loves the Gold Stars and tries her best to keep things going, sometimes signing her letters from the Alameda chapter: "Ethel Pedrick, secretary, treasurer, president and everything else."
Recently, though, she had to give up on the annual dinner she used to throw for her Gold Star friends. They got too old to drive and had to be chauffeured by their children, doubling the number of dinner guests from five to 10, which is a lot of chicken. But the thing that really did it was when Blanche Johnson, who is 100 and has a little trouble navigating the ladies' room, stopped drinking fluids two days before the big event, then passed out at the table from dehydration.
"That was it for me," Pedrick says.
The Gold Stars operate on a shoestring budget, relying on donations to make ends meet. The board was recently forced to increase the annual dues from $9 to $15 (it's free after age 90), causing quite a flap among the older members. But it was either raise the dues or stop printing the monthly newsletter, the executive officers explained, and no one wanted to see that happen.
The clubhouse in Washington is situated on a street with several embassies. The Gold Stars bought it in the 1950s as a home for the national president, but nobody wants to live there anymore. So Judith Young, who is the national service officer, drives her maroon SUV down I-95 from New Jersey every Monday morning, stopping only once at a Wawa market for cigarettes. She spends the next four days living out of a suitcase -- seven days, actually, when you consider that she doesn't bother to unpack on weekends at home because, what's the point?