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Gold Star Mothers: Helping Others Help Themselves

By Rudi Williams
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, March 21, 2000 – "I think before we send young men and women anywhere to fight, we'd better be ready to take care of them when they come home," Mary Wheeler said. "I don't mean just token appreciation. I mean take care of them."

With tear-glazed eyes, Wheeler said sadly that she sometimes sits and wonders where America would be today if young men and women had refused to fight "when we were first starting our country."

"Where would we be? What would we be doing?" asked Wheeler, president of American Gold Star Mothers Inc. She still grieves over the loss of her son in Vietnam more than 32 years ago. She's devoted the past 31 years of her life thanking veterans and service members for their sacrifices -- and invoking other Americans to do the same.

Members of Wheeler's group are mothers whose son or daughter died on active duty. Gold Star Mothers got their name from a practice that began during World War I of families hanging flags emblazoned with a dark blue star for each living member in the service and a gold one for each who had died. Mothers whose children are listed as missing can also join the organization.

About two weeks before she learned of her son's death, Wheeler remembered having a foreboding dream. When "they" came, it was exactly the way she'd dreamed it.

"They were a tall lieutenant and a short blond sergeant," she said, fighting back tears. She saw them through her kitchen window. When they knocked on her front door, she said, she tried to get out the back door.

"I don't know what I was trying to do or where I was trying to go," said Wheeler, of Utica, N.Y. "I just knew I had to run away, but I couldn't. I guess they didn't have to tell me. You know it can't be good news."

Marine Corps Pfc. Joseph K. Wheeler died March 31, 1968, at the Marine fire base at Khe Sanh in the closing days of the Tet Offensive siege.

"I thought I could never, never carry on, but I did have a lot of faith in God," said Wheeler. "My husband was very devastated. But he was my rock."

Her husband, Charles, a World War II veteran, died on May 29, 1992. Her older son, Charles R. Wheeler II, is a former Marine. The father of two, he's a greenskeeper at Valvarez College in Wanatah, Ind. Her daughter, Karen Popielski, is a surgery scheduler at St. Luke's Hospital in Utica. She and her husband have five boys.

"I really had a hard time dealing with it. I wish I'd been a stronger person, but I was very lucky to have a lot of good friends and my faith," she said. "I was finally able to cope and keep my family together and go on."

The concerns of a stranger prompted Wheeler to become a Gold Star Mother. The day after she learned of her son's death, a young woman, a stranger, appeared on her doorstep, introduced herself and said she'd lost her son, too.

"No one knows what you're going through, unless it's someone who has been through the same thing," Wheeler said. The stranger suggested they join the Gold Star Mothers chapter being formed in Utica. Wheeler remembered telling the woman, "I don't get involved in that kind of stuff." But she changed her mind.

Wheeler called joining the Gold Star Mothers in 1969 "a saving grace." Though she had felt like everything had been taken and that she had nothing left, joining the Gold Star Mothers, she said, made her realize she had something to give others.

"By helping others, I helped myself," she said. "All veterans are my boys and girls. It's what we imagine our son or daughter might be doing, or what their life would be like if they were here now. The main thrust of our organization is to help our veterans and mothers whose sons or daughters didn't come home.

"There are not many members in our home chapter here in Washington and they're all getting old," Wheeler said. "We have members across the country who are 100 years old and several in their 90s." She estimated the group has about 2,000 members nationwide.

The Gold Star Mothers have 28 "departments" nationwide. States with large memberships, such as New York, are separate departments. Others with fewer members have combined; California, Hawaii, Arizona and Nevada are one department, for instance, and Georgia and South Carolina form another.

Gold Star Mothers, she said, let veterans know that somebody cares. The mothers visit patients in Veterans Affairs hospitals and ensure they receive gifts on holidays and special occasions.

"We give them a hug to let them know somebody cares," Wheeler said. She is living at the Washington headquarters chapter home this year to help Jean K. Penfold, the national service officer, who is ill.

"I did get involved, mostly because I don't want anyone to forget what freedom cost us," she said. "We walk these streets, go to the store, go to the movies -- we do all of this because someone has bought that for us, and it's a price none of us can repay.

"We need to realize what our responsibilities are. We say 'freedom,' but freedom carries with it a great responsibility -- to see that we never forget our past. If we forget our past, we're going to make the same mistakes all over again. I don't think any of us want to do that."

For more information about the organization and membership requirements, visit its Web site at http://www.goldstarmoms.com/index.htm, call: (202) 265-0991, or send e-mail to: www.agsmoms@aol.com.

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Click photo for screen-resolution imageMary Wheeler, right, said she was devastated when she first saw her son's name on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial wall. "But when you see it," she says, "you realize what a really tremendous monument it is to our young men and women." Her son, Marine Pfc. Joseph K. Wheeler, died March 31, 1968, at Khe Sanh. With her is Jeanne K. Penfold, whose son, Marine Lance Cpl. Peter A. Penfold, was killed in action on Oct. 17, 1967. Photo by Rudi Williams.  
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Click photo for screen-resolution imageThe hand of Mary Wheeler holding a picture of her son, Marine Pfc. Joseph K. Wheeler, under his name on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial on the Washington Mall. He was killed in Vietnam on March 31, 1968. Photo by Rudi Williams.  
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