While Americans are familiar with Memorial Day and Veterans Day, and some are familiar with Armed Forces Day, few may know about Gold Star Mother's Day. It's a day set aside to recognize and honor the women whose children lost their lives in the line of military duty. One local author spent years collecting the stories of mothers who lost sons in the Vietnam War.
Linda Jenkin Costanzo, a Clarence resident, published the book Our Sons, Our Heroes: Memories Shared by America's Gold Star Mothers from the Vietnam War in 2013. It is a collection of testimonials and recollections by 19 Gold Star Mothers.
The project was inspired following a chance meeting in 2000, Jenkin Costanzo explained. She had brought her twin sons, then 8 years old, to a performance at the Theater of Youth in Buffalo. Seated next to her was a woman who was in attendance with her daughter and grandchildren. As they awaited the start of the show, they struck up a conversation.
"Out of the blue, she said yes, this is one my children. I have four, however I lost my son Mark in Vietnam," she said. "That just stopped me right in my tracks because I grew up as a teenager during the Vietnam War."
Her own brother served in the Navy during that era, though Jenkin Costanzo explained he was not directly involved in combat. Friends of his were in Vietnam, though, and she exchanged letters with some, including one who detailed his daily task of loading caskets aboard planes destined for the United States.
Following her chance encounter with the Gold Star Mother, Jenkin Costanzo set off on the mission to gather and share their tales. For more than a decade, she met, interviewed and corresponded with women - some of whom have since passed away - who offered their personal stories. Many, she suggests, finally got their first true chance for release.
"You don't just listen to the words that are being told to you, and you don't just take the written words that are in front of you. You listen to the words that are not spoken from these mothers," she said. "You look at the face when they gaze out the window and go back 40 years or 35 years. That is what I wrote from my heart to add to this story."
As for that woman Jenkin Costanzo met in the theater? They eventually reconnected. Lillian Schulte is among those whose tales are included in the book.
Another of the contributing mothers was the late Shirley Popoff, whose son Curtis Eugene Crawford was killed in action on February 28th, 1967 at the age of 19. She recalled harassing phone calls to their house, as written on page 11: "During lunch hour, I encountered local college students protesting on the streets in downtown Buffalo. They belonged to an anti-war group called Students for a Democratic Society. They would read the obituaries and search for names of servicemen like Curt and then place calls day or night to the families, venting anti-war sentiments. I received many of those calls."
Popoff also recalled an occasion in a South Buffalo diner, where a man in a business suit sitting on the opposite end of the counter suggested her son "got what he deserved."
Another Gold Star Mother who contributed is Georgie Carter Krell, who lives in the Miami area. Her son, Bruce Carter, was killed on August 7th, 1969 at the age of 19. He was on patrol when a firefight broke out and, after a grenade was tossed toward his comrades, he threw his body over it to protect them. He was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor.
In her grief, she slammed the door on the two Marines who came to deliver the bad news. They paid a second visit to deliver his decorations. For years after her son's death, Krell worked to preserve her son's legacy including having a veterans hospital named in his memory. She joined the American Gold Star Mothers organization and became its national president. It gave her the chance to meet with then-First Lady Michelle Obama and Second Lady Dr. Jill Biden, both of whom were seeking advice for assisting families of men and women who were currently serving.
"Mrs. Obama was a delightful, honest woman. I enjoyed being with her. I made the point - they were talking what they were doing now - but I said you forgot all the people (of the Vietnam era). There was no help for our children, there was no help for my daughter, it was just pull up your bootstraps and keep going," Krell said.
While Vietnam veterans were scorned upon their return home from action, later generations of American military received heroes' welcomes. Many Vietnam-era veterans and military advocates say it was the experience the Vietnam generation endured which compelled future generations of citizens to make sure it wouldn't happen again. Krell and other Gold Star Mothers from the Vietnam era have networked with Gold Star Mothers of Iraq and Afghanistan participants.
Sandra Krege is a Gold Star Mother whose son, Travis, was killed by an improvised explosive device (IED) while on patrol in Afghanistan 12 years ago. She spoke with WBFO about the importance of networking with fellow Gold Star Mothers.
"We share when we're having our difficult times," Krege said. "They all understand. We all understand what it's like to have a birthday with no one to celebrate any more, what the Holidays are like, going to a wedding when you know you never got to see your own child marry or have children, or things like that."
When asked if she was bothered by the lesser awareness of Gold Star Mother's Day by the average American, Krege admitted disappointment but suggested it is her son who made the ultimate sacrifice and, thus, it is he who should remain in the forefront of honors.
Jenkin Constanzo, meanwhile, points out that while her book focused on mothers who lost sons in Vietnam, there are countless Gold Star Fathers of the Vietnam era who kept their pain hidden.
"The Gold Star Father organization is not as large as the Gold Star Mothers," she said. "These men suffered silently. Many of them passed away long before the mothers did.
"I will always wonder if, somehow, the stress and the grief just overcame them and they found just no way to talk about it."