I recently had a most disturbing conversation, not just because of the content, but because of with whom I was speaking. I was talking to a Viet Nam veteran, and the fact that this Sunday, September 29 was the last Sunday in September and as such is National Gold Star Mothers Day came up. There is nothing surprising in a veteran knowing, honoring and recognizing the import of Gold Star Mothers Day, in fact it is something I assume to the point of taking it for granted that any veteran would know and honor this day. The surprising part was the rant he went on, decrying how the families of those who died in any way other than in action or as a result of injuries sustained in action are recognized as Gold Stars. To him, the most outrageous example of this is recognizing those who killed themselves.
In his opinion, one shared officially by the Department of Defense, these other deaths are tragic but they are not the same as being killed in action. He said that while all those who put on this nation’s uniform should be honored, only those who died in battle are true heroes. He stated the Gold Star recognition is supposed to be in honor of that heroic death and no
This is an attitude I’ve come across before, but never had I heard it stated so emphatically and by someone who also wore the uniform of our nation. He used the analogy of the fireman who dies of a heart attack at the firehouse while waiting for a call versus a fireman who gives his life while rescuing a child from a burning building. While all firemen are heroes because
of what they are willing to do, the only true hero is the one who in the course of his duties sacrifices his own life. He talked about the wake of a fireman he recently attended where the force was out in full in honor of his years of service but no one claimed he died in the line of duty, and therefore, there were honors not bestowed upon him or his family. His argument comes down to the opinion that conferring hero status on every soldier that dies dilutes the recognition due those who are killed in action.
I hate to say it, but I see his point. That doesn’t mean I agree with it, just that I understand the passion of his position.
After recognizing him and thanking him for his service to our nation, I asked only one question. I asked if he wanted to be the one to look in the face of a grieving mother and say that her son was not a hero and she therefore does not deserve recognition in spite of the fact that had it not been for his decision to serve, her son would be alive today.
He hated to admit it, but he saw my point.
He said he had never looked at it from the perspective of a mom who has just buried her child. Thinking about it in the terms that it was the decision to serve others that cost this mother her child put it in a whole new light, he said. After that, we got down to talking about the one circumstance he still held fast to in his original objection, that of suicides.
The fact that I was speaking with a Viet Nam vet was ever present in my mind. This is a man who served his country, possibly not by his own choice, in a war that still engenders deeply divided and fiercely held passions in this country. I was very aware that his experiences and those of the men and boys he served with was very different from this and previous
generations of soldiers. His generation were vilified and virtually ignored for decades as they struggled with PTSD, Agent Orange, drug and alcohol addictions and a host of other personal, social and societal issues. To this day, Viet Nam era vets account for the highest percentage of those who are homeless in this country. So, it wasn’t really surprising he was less than understanding of those who succumbed to the demons so many of his generation faced and continue to face to this day.
I wanted to rephrase this issue in a way that respected and recognized the suffering of his brothers-in-arms without diminishing the very real suffering of those who struggle with PTSD and are unable to overcome or live with those demons. So, I told him about my cousin G.G.
When I was seven, G.G. came home from Viet Nam. He had been injured, we were told, but I remember being confused when I saw him because he didn’t have any bandages and seemed to be just like he was when he left. I was told he was one of the only guys in his unit to survive. The bomb that killed his buddies in front of him had ruptured both of his ear drums and knocked him unconscious. It was several hours before he was found under the bodies, or the remains of the bodies, of two of his friends.
G.G. was sent home as unfit for service due to his ruptured ear drums. As time went by, his family understood his ears weren’t the only things broken on his final day in combat.
We kids learned right away not to comment on the fact that G.G. slept a lot, and mostly either under his bed or in his closet. We learned not to make a lot of noise, not to be too rambunctious around the house and to never, never screech or scream when G.G. was sleeping. Most of all, we learned that G.G. really wasn’t the same as when he left, even if he didn’t have bandages.
He was my favorite cousin, as I was his, and while that remained true, he no longer wanted to chase me and run around and play like he used to. The old G.G. was great for a hug, but loved nothing more than chasing me, catching me up in his strong arms and making me squeal in laughter at being tickled; this G.G. only wanted me to sit quiet in his lap and tell him about whatever came to my seven year old mind.
As I told this Viet Nam vet about my cousin, I could see the softness, the recognition and the moisture gather in his eyes. I knew as I was speaking, he could see himself and his buddies in my description of G.G.’s first days and weeks home. Unfortunately, G.G. never came all the way home and forty years later still sits quietly in his room more days than not.
I then told this soldier from another generation that I wanted to do all I could to make the reality for those who have had a bad war in Iraq and Afghanistan easier than it was for my cousin G.G. I explained that part of that was making sure that those who understandably succumb to the horrors in their minds from which they can find no relief are honored and
recognized for their service. More, I wanted to make sure that the mothers of those soldiers did not have their grief compounded by being shamed, shunned or discarded over the method of their soldier’s death. I want to see all the mothers honored and respected for the life their soldier lived, a life given in service to their nation.
We have a long way to go before we as a nation say we are doing all we can, all we should for those who have served. At least we can and should honor the mothers who have given all they have, their most precious possession, in service to our country. I told this now tearful, thoughtful Viet Nam vet that honoring the mothers has nothing to do with the method of death of
their child; it is about honoring the method of their child’s life.
I can’t say if I changed this man’s mind, but he did say that I gave him a different perspective on who should and should not be called a Gold Star Mother. He also said he will say a prayer for all the mothers, even those whose child committed suicide, this Sunday on National Gold Star Mothers Day.