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Gold Star Mothers continue the service of their fallen children

BETHESDA — A mother arrives at the Red Cross office at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center on a mission for her son, a 23-year-old soldier and double amputee. He needs a back scratcher.

With her bright eyes and wide smile, volunteer Janice Chance gives her that and more — a reassuring rub on the arm and an offer to do anything else she can for the soldier, who is visiting the hospital for tests.

In a sense, Chance is here for her own son, too.

Marine Capt. Jesse Melton III, the oldest of Chance's three children, was killed by a roadside bomb in Afghanistan in 2008. Soon after his death, the Owings Mills woman began volunteering with the Red Cross at Walter Reed and in the emergency room at the Baltimore Veterans Affairs Medical Center.

Chance is one of 50 Maryland mothers who are honoring the memory of their fallen sons and daughters by tending to the needs of those still fighting, the wounded and the veterans.

Together, they have revived the long-dormant state chapter of the American Gold Star Mothers, a service organization made up exclusively of women who have lost children in the military.

Founded after World War I and widely recognized during World War II, the American Gold Star Mothers had been dwindling for decades. Now the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have brought a new generation of women to the organization.

Maryland is one of several states seeing a revival. Nationally, the organization now counts 2,000 women as members.

"We know that grief turned inward is destructive," Chance says. "But when you allow yourself to serve and support others, it aids with the healing process."

The mothers ship care packages to troops overseas; they volunteer with the VA, the USO and other organizations; they speak at colleges, before veterans groups and at Memorial Day gatherings.

"It's just keeping our kids' spirit alive in helping others," says Carol Roddy, president of the Maryland chapter.

A 'special connection'

Susan Kern, who manages volunteers for the VA Maryland Health Care System, says the gold star mothers bring a "special connection" to their work.

"They do have that love for country, that love for soldiers, that love for veterans," she says. "Who better to give quality care to our veteran patients than people that really respect and love what they did?"

The mothers call it the club that no one wants to join. But they also say they have found comfort in continuing the service of their sons and daughters, in staying connected to active members of the military, and in working alongside others who understand their loss.

"There is no one like another mother who knows how you feel," says Norma Luther, the organization's national president. "Particularly another gold star mother. Because losing an adult child is one of the hardest things in life."

American Gold Star Mothers traces its roots to World War I, and aWashington, D.C., woman whose son died in that conflict.

Lt. George Vaughn Seibold, an American aviator who volunteered with the British Royal Flying Corps, was killed in action over France in 1918. In her grief, Grace Darling Seibold reached out to other women who had lost sons in the military.

Together, they formed a group to visit and help care for hospitalized veterans. They took their name from the gold star that families hung in windows when mourning a service member.

Prominent during much of the 20th century, the organization had largely faded from public consciousness at the dawn of the 21st.

Group's revival

Then came the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Those conflicts have boosted membership to the highest levels in decades. The Maryland chapter, which was revived in 2007, has doubled its membership in five years.

Luther, the national president, lost her son, Army Capt. Glen P. Adams Jr., in a helicopter crash in Germany in 1988. She says gold star mothers aims to provide two kinds of service.

"First and foremost, we want to help our veterans, the wounded warriors, and the families behind these, because they are the ones who need our help," she says.

Second, she says, the group encourages any kind of community service.

"Whatever we can do, if we are made aware of the need, we try to fulfill that need ... anything that you do that helps your community and your fellow man," she says.

Roddy, the state president, heard about the organization growing up. She had an uncle who died in World War II, and her grandmother was a member.

Roddy's son, Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class David Sean Roddy, was killed by a roadside bomb in Iraq in 2006. When she tried to join the American Gold Star Mothers, they directed her to the Washington chapter. There was no active group in Maryland.

"I thought, 'There's got to be other mothers who might be interested in the Maryland area,'" the Abingdon woman says. So she went to the Washington office for guidance.

"They gave me the information as to how to revive a group," she says. "We went through files. We literally went through addresses in a file cabinet to find anybody who had a Maryland address."

She invited those she found to a meeting at St. Frances de Sales Church in Abingdon. Twenty-eight showed up, and they set about making plans.

The women, some of whom are joined by husbands — fathers may join the American Gold Star Mothers as nonvoting, nondues-paying associate members, now meet bimonthly at Fort Meade. They share volunteer experiences, plan projects and assemble care packages.

Fighting the isolation

When they learn that a service member has died, mothers attend the funeral.

"We tell [the mothers] that whenever they're ready, we're here for them if they would like to talk to us," Luther says. "Sometimes the mother never calls. Sometimes the father calls for the mother, because they think it's something they can do for their wives."

Lee Ann Doerflinger's son, Spc. Thomas K. Doerflinger, died in a firefight in Iraq in 2004. The Silver Spring woman remembers a feeling of isolation in the weeks and months that followed.

"The initial part was that I didn't really know anybody else who had lost a child," she says. "I certainly knew no one else who had lost a child in this war. It was just really very lonely. Really lonely."

Over time, opportunities arose to meet with others who had lost children. Then-Gov.Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.was quietly holding receptions for families of fallen troops, police officers and firefighters.

A newspaper did a story about the Doerflingers and three other Maryland families that had lost sons in the span of four days in Iraq.

Then Roddy revived the state chapter of the gold star mothers.

"Connecting with other people became very helpful," Doerflinger says.

The women say they are not a support group in any formal sense. Still, they do find comfort in coming together.

"We have a new mom, she's there, we let them talk about their hero," Roddy says. "The people that come realize that they're not alone, that there are others out there, and this is what we're doing to ease our pain by helping others. And the more involved we get, the easier the grief is to bear.

"So we are a little bit of a support group in that sense. But we don't want to give the vision that we're sitting there boohooing with tissues all around."

Most of the mothers in the state chapter have lost children in the past decade. But Edith Canapp first joined the American Gold Star Mothers in 1968, after her son, Cpl. Gary Canapp, died in Vietnam.

Roddy describes Edith Canapp as the chapter's adviser. Canapp, now 86, sees her role as inspirational.

"I still see those two officers coming to my door," the Abingdon woman says. But over time, she says, "the pain is lighter."

"The reason I wanted to be involved in this new development is I've been there," Canapp says. She says she can show the younger mothers that life goes on.

"If that's the only symbol I stand for, that pleases my heart."

No politics

In a nation divided over the wars of the past decade, Luther says members "stay above" politics.

"We know that there are mothers who feel that the war should never have happened, shouldn't be going on now, and end it quickly — and those who are at the other end of that spectrum and feel like President Bush did the right thing," she says. "We choose to ignore those differences and continue to work on what's important, and that's our mission to help veterans and to be there as support of each other."

Tracy Miller says it isn't difficult to keep her opinions separate from her work with the mothers.

Miller, the vice president of the state chapter, lost her son, Marine Cpl. Nick Ziolkowski, to a sniper in Iraq in 2004.

An instructor at Towson University, she helped to establish a center there for veterans, with a full-time veteran services coordinator and "thank you" grants for students who have served since Sept. 11, 2001.

She also traveled to the White House to protest the war in Iraq.

"At the meetings, we are talking about positive action that we can do," the Towson woman says. "We have choices. I spoke at Crownsville [Veterans] Cemetery a couple of years ago for the Memorial Day, and I've spoken at other cemeteries on Veterans Day. I just keep politics out of it.

"Even during Vietnam, I knew enough not to blame the people, the soldiers."

Part of the family

It's 8 a.m. in the USO lounge atBaltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport— a comfortable space off the baggage claim area where service members passing through may stop for coffee or a bite to eat, to go online or watch television, to make telephone calls or catch up on some sleep.

Roddy and her husband, Bob, volunteer here twice a month. On this morning, she's chatting with Xavier Jimenez, a midshipman heading home to Brooklyn after completing his second year at the Naval Academy.

Jimenez sees the mothers as part of a broader military family.

"I think it definitely must be hard for them to stay involved," he says. "It takes a strong person to be able to do that."

Janice Chance sees staying involved as a way forward.

"Our hearts will never ever stop aching," she says. "That hole will always be there. But that void, it's filled with service. Our children's service has not really ended. It's a comma, and we're continuing on."

matthew.brown@baltsun.com

twitter.com/matthewhaybrown

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