by Heather Marie Stur, Ph.D. and Susannah Ural, Ph.D.
Lindsey Wilbur sat in the front row at the unveiling of a Gold Star Families memorial at Camp Shelby in south Mississippi on May 15 and wondered where were the widows? Where were the children of fallen service members? The ceremony program featured speeches by Mississippi Governor Phil Bryant, the Camp and state commanders, the last surviving WWII Marine to receive the Medal of Honor, and a mother and a father of slain soldiers. The Gold Star parents shared their heartbreaking stories of losing their children. For Ms. Wilbur, though, who lost her husband, Staff Sgt E-6 Chris Wilbur, less than two years ago, and is now raising an eight-year-old son and a three-year-old daughter alone, wartime loss remains raw, messy, and complicated. The Gold Star Families memorial at Camp Shelby is a moving tribute that fulfills its purpose to remember lost service personnel and their families. But we fail them if we expect a monument to fully address what the Wilbur family and others like it are still enduring. We have failed these families if we remember names and wars without any real sense of why the sacrifices were made and their impact on the families of fallen soldiers.
The event at Camp Shelby and the Memorial Day commemorations that millions of Americans are holding this weekend share a common focus on memory and loss. One of the most famous of these ceremonies included an 1884 address by Union Army veteran and later US Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. who promised that it was the “great good fortune” of Civil War veterans that “in our youth our hearts were touched with fire. It was given to us to learn at the outset that life is a profound and passionate thing.” He saw deep purpose in these annual gatherings that offered an opportunity for “a national act of enthusiasm and faith.”Such passion, Holmes argued, was key to Americans’ willingness to fight for the good, as they defined it, in their communities and their nation. But Holmes celebrated a life both “profound” and “passionate.” As we embark on our Memorial Day commemorations and Gold Star monument dedications, our passion is certainly intact. Thousands of towns across the nation will host parades, will mark graves, and they will take time to honor and to remember. And this is good. But do we have any sense of what drove us into these wars, how Americans debated them at the time, and what military families endured? If we remember without context and without lessons, are we really benefiting anyone?
The concept of gold star families dates back to World War I. Families who had a member serving in the conflict flew flags with a blue star for every man fighting. If one of those family members died in the war, then a gold star would replace the blue one. In 1918, the Women’s Committee of National Defenses convinced President Woodrow Wilson to adopt the use of a black armband with a gold star on it to signify the mourning of a dead serviceman. A decade later, a group of twenty-five mothers established the American Gold Star Mothers, Inc. Beginning in 1936, Americans have observed Gold Star Mothers and Families Day on the last Sunday of September. After World War II ended, Congress allowed the military to present gold star pins to families of service personnel killed in combat. In 1973, as the Vietnam War was drawing down, Congress expanded gold star pin eligibility to include families of any service member who died while on active duty.Today, American Gold Star Mothers still exists, along with other organizations, to aid gold star families, who the U.S. Army refers to as “gold star survivors.”
Decoration Day, known today as Memorial Day, had more sporadic origins in the 1860s. Some argue that it started when African-Americans in Charleston, South Carolina gathered in May 1865 to lay wreaths and memorialize the deaths of hundreds of Union prisoners of war outside that city. To these mourners, the dead symbolized the sacrifices that led to the emancipation of millions and saved the Union. About the same time, separate groups of mourners gathered in Georgia and Mississippi where local women honored their Confederate dead. Similar ceremonies took place in Illinois, New York, and Pennsylvania to honor Union dead. These events were made official by Gen. John A. Logan when, as commander of the largest Union veterans organization, the Grand Army of the Republic, he declared that every May, Americans should pause to decorate the graves and ensure that the nation never forget “the cost of a free and undivided republic.”
But our memorials are simply moving carvings in stone if we fail to couple them with learning. Civil War monuments are a prime example of this. They exist in hundreds of American communities, but they cannot capture the complexities of that war or its full impact on hundreds of thousands of families. Northern monuments often ignore emancipation with their focus on Union, while Confederate memorials, in addition to ignoring slavery, disregard the tremendous dissent that existed in southern white and black communities that weakened their war effort. Many Civil War monuments focus on the suffering of families, but how many led to the improved care of military personnel and their loved ones? That is not their purpose. Their goal is to honor and remember, and the limitations of that medium inspires powerful emotions, but few lessons. Those are our responsibility.
We are no better at remembering the complexities of more modern conflicts. We have largely forgotten events like the antiwar rally in Philadelphia in 1969, when members of the city’s Gold Star Mothers chapter blocked the reading of names of fallen Vietnam soldiers. The mothers did so because they believed that the demonstrators did not value what their sons fought and died for in Vietnam.But rather than publicly castigate them, President Richard Nixon sent the women a message praising their efforts and invited them to the White House. Not all Gold Star mothers held the same views as the Philadelphia mothers. In 1971, some marched with members of Vietnam Veterans Against the War to Arlington Cemetery, where mothers placed wreaths outside the gate. Gold Star mothers also got involved in efforts to recover POWs and MIAs from Vietnam. In 2005, Cindy and Patrick Sheehan, who lost their son, Army Spc. Casey Sheehan, in Iraq in 2004, founded Gold Star Families for Peace. In order to help grieving families heal, we need to learn more about their losses. Monuments are a start; frank conversations must follow.
The journalist Gloria Emerson, who spent years covering the Vietnam War and wrote about Gold Star Mothers for the New York Times in 1973, explained that at the end of World War I, when women suggested to President Wilson that a black armband with a gold star could symbolize a fallen soldier, the point was to emphasize “the glory of death, not the sadness.” The mothers Emerson interviewed spoke easily of their deceased sons. Marie Hart, president of the organization in 1967-68, told Emerson that the mission of Gold Star Mothers was “not to dwell on the loss but to help the living.”It is our job, instead, to discuss those losses. Talking about the deaths of service personnel in all forms is how we will come to terms with what war does to families. As Congress acknowledged in 1973, gold star families have lost active duty service members in various ways, not just in combat. Addiction and mental illness have taken the lives of servicemen and women, and in the age of the all-volunteer military, where service members and families face multiple deployments to war zones, context and conversation about how and why soldiers have died will help us understand more deeply soldier and family experiences.
The Gold Star Families Memorial Monument at Camp Shelby is the first of its kind to be built in Mississippi. Three more are planned for the state, and thirty-five monuments exist in thirty-six states throughout the country. They stand as physical reminders of the sons and daughters, husbands and wives, mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, and children American military families have lost to war. Open, honest conversation across political lines about how and why service personnel die, what grieving military families need, and how the government and the military might better take care of service members so as to prevent non-combat deaths will make the monuments more powerful. Respectful discussion and debate are foundational to a healthy democracy, that political tradition for which American servicemen and women ostensibly fight and die, leaving behind broken families desperate for answers about why their loved ones are gone. A monument will always be a failure if we expect it to tell their full story without subsequent conversations about war deaths and their legacies.
Heather Marie Stur is the Gen. Buford “Buff” Blount Professor in Military History at the University of Southern Mississippi and a fellow at the Dale Center for the Study of War and Society. She is a co-editor of Integrating the U.S. Military: Race, Gender, and Sexual Orientation Since World War IIand the author of Beyond Combat: Women and Gender in the Vietnam War Era.
Susannah Ural is professor of history and co-director of the Dale Center for the Study of War & Society at the University of Southern Mississippi. Her latest book is Hood’s Texas Brigade: The Soldiers and Families of the Confederacy’s Most Celebrated Unit.