America Supports You: Gold Star Wives Founder Remains Active
By Rudi Williams
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, April 21, 2005 Marie Jordan Speer, 83, is the epitome of perpetual motion when it comes to the Gold Star Wives, the organization she created six decades ago to help widows of servicemen killed in combat during World War II.
Not only is she still an active member, Speer opened a new chapter in Corpus Christi, Texas, on March 28 to help the spouses of servicemembers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. There are also several widows of servicemen killed during World War II and the Korean, Vietnam and the Persian Gulf wars in that area.
The nonprofit organization was founded in New York in 1945 and granted a federal charter by Congress in 1980. To be eligible for membership, an individual's spouse must have died while on active duty in the armed forces or died from a service-related disability.
Originally named the American Widows of World War II, the group's name later changed to Gold Star Wives of World War II and then to Gold Star Wives of America.
The organization came into being on April 5, 1945, when four widows met in Speer's (Marie Jordan at the time) apartment in Manhattan. A week later, President Franklin D. Roosevelt died, and in the coming months, first lady Eleanor Roosevelt attended meetings and wrote about the organization in her "My Day" syndicated newspaper column.
In a her column titled "War Widows" in the New York World-Telegram on Sept. 18, 1945, Eleanor Roosevelt wrote about attending a meeting of the fledgling group.
"Most of these widows, of course, want opportunities for social life. Then they want some concerted effort made to find better employment opportunities -- especially part-time work, or work at home, for those who have children," Roosevelt wrote. "They have additional problems, such as allotments which do not come through. Many, too, must leave small children behind while they go to work, and they are concerned over the problem of what to do when there are no adequate child care centers in their neighborhood."
Roosevelt served on the board of directors and was a signer of the group's original articles of incorporation. "That's how some people, very quickly, got to know what we were doing," Speer said.
There are now more than 10,000 members nationwide with 60 chapters in 50 states.
"Who would have thought that 60 years after I started the Gold Star Wives I'd be involved in starting a little chapter in Corpus Christi," said Speer. She noted she started the original organization after her husband, Army Pvt. Edward H. Jordan, was killed near Aachen, Germany, on Nov. 25, 1944. She said newspapers of the day would print pictures of men who died in the war.
"Over 400,000 were killed in World War II, so it's a little difficult for people to relate to that era now," Speer noted. When her husband was killed, she "called some other women whose husbands' pictures were in the paper. ... I invited some of them to come over to talk to see what we could do to help each other. Immediately, we said we needed a support group."
She said the group members wanted to stay busy to help deal with their pain, and they wanted to do something constructive "to carry on the work that our husbands died for."
Speer said the organization held its first open meeting in a public high school in Manhattan, and the women immediately got involved in programs for the children of widows. "We gave parties for the children, took them on trips and had a very active summer camp for them," Speer noted. "Then in the '50s, we ended up having our own camp in Wisconsin."
During World War II, the military didn't provide any death gratuity for families, Speer noted. Today, the military's "death gratuity" is $12,000, and legislation has been introduced to increase that to $100,000. "We didn't get two cents," Speer said. "We did get a $50 a month pension and $15 for the child."
During World War II, servicemembers had a $10,000 insurance policy. "But they didn't pay that in a lump sum, you had to take it in monthly benefits," Speer noted. "So if you were a young person, the monthly check over a lifetime didn't amount to very much. So young people were offered to take it on a basis of 20 years, which amounted to $55 a month." Speer said her husband's widowed mother got half of his insurance money, leaving her with $27.50 a month.
The widows started lobbying Congress for increased benefits, but accomplishing anything was difficult. So she bundled up her young son -- who was two weeks past his first birthday when his father died -- and moved to Washington in 1947 to work on legislation. Speer said she lucked out on her first visit to Capitol Hill.
"I walked into the office of a young first-term congressman named Olin E. Teague, and he turned out to be a remarkable man," she said. "He was wonderful to us and adopted our cause. He helped us get educational benefits for the children and later for the widows."
Teague also worked on a review of survivors' benefits and helped to overhaul the whole system in 1956, when Congress installed the Dependency and Indemnity Compensation program. DIC is a monthly benefit paid to survivors of servicemembers and specific categories of disabled veterans.
"Then the benefits got much more realistic," Speer noted.
Gold Star Wives is still lobbying House and Senate committees on issues concerning compensation, education benefits, medical care and other programs pertaining to the welfare of surviving spouses and their children.
"Only a service widow understands the sorrow and problems of another service widow," she noted.
Speer said modern technology makes it easier for widows of husbands who were killed in Iraq and Afghanistan to get together. "They have a chat room where the women talk to each other on the Internet," she noted. "This is a very good thing because it brings them together."