American Gold Star Mothers
Shortly after Lisa LaBlanc-Willis' stepson was killed in Iraq in July 2004, she turned to the Internet seeking emotional support.
"Losing a child in any way is so incredibly devastating," the Lawrence woman said. "It just turns your world upside down."
That search led LaBlanc-Willis to American Gold Star Mothers, an organization of mothers whose children have died while serving in the military and one that has a history that stretches back to World War I.
LaBlanc-Willis learned that Gold Star Mothers perform community service as well as provide support to each other and to veterans.
"That was what appealed to me about it," LaBlanc-Willis, 44, said. "I thought, 'Well, my son's gone, but what about all those other men and women who are coming back with such tremendous injuries?'"
Lawrence resident Virginia Harris' son was killed during a training session in 1986.
"As soon as I found out about my son, and over the next several days, the thing I wanted the most was to talk to somebody," said Harris, 77.
But it wasn't until three years after her son's death that she became a Gold Star mom. She saw a newspaper story about a woman in Missouri who was Gold Star Mothers national president. Harris called the woman.
Killed in action
Harris and LaBlanc-Willis are two of about a dozen Gold Star Mothers in Kansas. They are the only ones in Lawrence.
Harris' son, Sgt. Tim Harris, was a Ranger who was assigned to various Army units during his career. On July 3, 1986, he was with a mechanized unit performing maneuvers in West Germany. He was crushed to death when he became trapped between two armored personnel carriers.
LaBlanc-Willis' son, Spc. Ken Leisten of Cornelius, Ore., serving with the Oregon Army National Guard, was killed when the Humvee he was driving was struck by an improvised explosive device in Iraq.
Betty Jean Pulliam, 80, of rural Sedgwick County, is the national president of Gold Star. Her son was killed on Mother's Day in 1967 in South Vietnam. Until the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Gold Star's membership consisted mostly of Vietnam mothers. Now a younger group of mothers is joining.
A low-key approach is used to solicit new members, Pulliam said.
"We don't rush in right after the loss of a child," she said.
The U.S. Department of Defense doesn't release the names, addresses and phone numbers of the relatives whose loved ones are killed. Members follow media reports to find out about them.
Harris has contacted some mothers by phone just to let them know she is available to talk.
"It sometimes takes about a year or so for them to be ready," she said. "So many mothers today hold jobs and it's hard for them to find time to meet."
LaBlanc-Willis and Harris have talked on the phone but the two have never met face-to-face. They still intend to get together sometime for coffee or lunch.
"We haven't had hardly any contact," LaBlanc-Willis said. "She's kind of taken the hands-off approach until I'm ready to get involved."
The Kansas mothers do not meet on a regular basis.
"It's kind of hard to meet when you are strung out all over Kansas," Pulliam said. Some of them do stay in contact, however, by phone or e-mail, she said.
The national Gold Star Mothers group will have its annual meeting June 23-27 in Wichita.
Advocating for veterans
LaBlanc-Willis thinks this is the year that she will become more involved with Gold Star activities. Gold Star mothers volunteer to assist veterans organizations and at veterans hospitals, an area of interest for her.
She would like to see Gold Star become more of an advocate for better physical and mental health care for veterans.
"Who better to speak for them than mothers?" LaBlanc-Willis asked. "Who has a better understanding than a bereaved mother?
Harris said she has assisted veterans groups with a variety of events over the years. She still sometimes wears the white dress uniform that is a Gold Star tradition. She wears it when she attends Memorial Day services each year at Fort Leavenworth National Cemetery, where her son is buried.
"I kind of watch for a mother who looks like she needs a lift, and I tell the soldiers that I hope they go home and have a good barbecue," Harris said.
Today LaBlanc-Willis will spend time at her rural Douglas County home thinking about the stepson she raised in Oregon from the age of 2.
"Sometimes I sit in the garden, in a quiet, shady place by a tree," she said. "I imagine what might have been. Sometimes I let myself be carried back to the early days. He's always with me."
Gold Star history
During World War I it became common for people to display a blue star in their windows to represent someone who was serving in the military. If that person was killed in action, the blue star was replaced with a gold star.In 1928, a group of 25 mothers in Washington, D.C., organized American Gold Star Mothers. In 1984 Congress granted American Gold Star Mothers Inc. a charter.The organization's objectives include performing community service, assisting veterans and perpetuating the memory of those killed in war.For more information see www.goldstarmoms.com/agsm/Home/index.htm.