A publication of Vietnam Veterans of America, Inc. ®
An organization chartered by the U.S. Congress

February 1999/March 1999

Gold Star Mothers

By Jim Belshaw

Before the introductions are made and conversations begin, the women almost always are more at ease than the men. The men often hesitate, unsure of what to say and what not to say, worried that one wrong word will cause needless pain.

But once the ice is broken and the conversation flows freely, sometimes even before, something more demonstrative than words surfaces.

"They want to hug you,'' Ron Edgington of West Grove, Pa., said. "They want you to hug them back.''

They often want something else, too, the very thing that made the men uneasy at first.

"I have yet to meet a Gold Star Mother who doesn't want to talk about her son,'' Edgington said.

Organized in 1928, the Gold Star Mothers is a nondenominational, nonprofit organization of mothers whose children died in the line of duty. More than 1,700 women belong to the organization.

"I spend a fair amount of time volunteering at The Wall inWashington, looking up names, that kind of thing,'' Edgington said. "One day there was a lady close to the front of the line wearing a Gold Star Mothers pin. I took her by the arm and I said, 'You go to the front of the line. You don't have to wait for anybody.' A guy made a comment about how he was there first. Another guy said,'This is a Gold Star Mother, and she can do anything she damn well wants to do.' You know, the water kind of parts when they come through. I see this over and over again. There's a respect there.''
 
Elizabeth Butts and Bill Wester

"Mom, can I go?'' Gary Butts said. "Can I go?''

He was eighteen years old, ready to graduate from high school, eager to enlist. The recruiters had been to his school. He liked what he heard.

His mother, Elizabeth Butts, wasn't so sure.

"I don't know if I care for you to go, Gary,'' she said. "Why don't you wait and see what you're going to do in life?''

Gary was adamant. His father and uncle had served in World War II; his grandfather in World War I.

The Army sent him to Germany. He volunteered for Vietnam. Four months after he arrived in-country, Gary was severely burned when powder bags in his artillery position exploded during the battle for Hamburger Hill. A few days later, he died in a Tokyo hospital.

On a Monday in 1969, two uniformed soldiers came to Mrs. Butts's front door.

"I live across the street from a school, and I'm very involved in the school,'' she said. "Everyone on the school grounds was looking over at my front door, and one of the teachers said,'Liz has trouble.' The soldiers went around the back, and the dog didn't bark, and that dog always barks when somebody comes around. But he let those two soldiers in."

Liz joined the Gold Star Mothers immediately. She knew about the organization from World War II. Two cousins had been killed in action. Liz's aunts had joined.

She went to a military hospital in Valley Forge to work with Vietnam wounded. Every Friday night she made punch and hoagies and brought the food to the hospital.

She brought whatever she thought the boys might like.

"And I'll tell you what,'' she said. "I collected all the dirty books on the market for them. I had everybody putting dirty books in my shed, and on Friday night, I'd take them out there. This is what you do. I went upstairs to the amputees, and I said,'God give me the strength,' because the smell up there was terrible, but that's where I went every Friday night, upstairs to the amputees.''

In October 1995 Liz came home one day after running errands and her husband said he had a surprise for her. Someone had called from Toledo, Ohio, while Liz was out. His name was Bill Wester. He'd been with an artillery unit in the A Shau Valley with the 101st Airborne Division. He said he knew Gary.

"I said,'Thank God,' because then I knew Gary wasn't alone,'' Mrs. Butts said. "I belong to the VVA in Delaware County [Pennsylvania]. A chapter member said,'Liz, put your name in the paper [The VVA Veteran]. Maybe you'll find someone who knew Gary.'''

Bill Wester of Chapter 142 in Monroe, Michigan, had just come home from a family vacation that October. He was going through The VVA Veteran and started reading the "Locator'' when he saw the name "Gary Butts.''

"He was just one of the guys,'' Wester said. "I remember him well. He came in right after New Year's, and you could always tell a new troop. We were all grubby and he was all spit and polish.''

Bill and Liz talked on the phone frequently, but they didn't meet until June 1996 at the Gold Star Mothers convention in Saginaw, Mich. They met again on Gold Star Mothers Day that September and again the following year.

"It's not difficult for her to talk about him anymore,'' Wester said. "You know, we talked last night, and for the first time she said,'I wonder what he'd look like today. He'd be forty-nine. I never see him at fifty. I always see him at eighteen and a half.' That's how old he was when he died. I've had more than one Gold Star Mother come up to me and say she wishes she could meet somebody who knew her kid. But Liz and I talk about Gary maybe 25 percent of the time. I think it's a friendship now. I think it's what all those women want.''

Liz Butts said she knows her son wasn't alone in Vietnam, just as she knows he's not alone on The Wall. But she still found comfort in Bill Wester, knowing he had been there with her son.

She said she worried a little about how their first meeting would go, but the worries soon vanished.

"They become our sons,'' she said. "We try to enjoy ourselves. We try to have fun. We don't want to be filled with sorrow all the time. The times come when you hear things said at a memorial or something and it grabs you, but you have to bypass that. You have to go on with life. Gary did what he wanted to do. So I go with that.''

She lives in Florida now. She wants Bill Wester to visit.

"She tells my wife we're family now,'' he said. "She wants us to come down there and stay with her.''

Dorothy Detwiler and Ron Edgington
 
"She brought it up first--who he served with, where, what he was doing when he got killed,'' Ron Edgington of West Grove, Pa., said. "They love to share the past, which was really something for me in the beginning. I didn't quite know how to bridge that. I didn't know whether to talk about it or not talk about it. I think it's easier for them to approach us than it is for us to approach them. You're not really sure whether you should. But it didn't take long to realize that they all want to talk about it.''

When Edgington joined VVA Chapter 436, Dorothy Detwiler already was a member. She had joined during the time of Desert Storm. One of the chapter's founding members invited her to a church service. He said he had hoped to find a Gold Star Mother who would attend.

After the service, he asked if she would be interested in joining VVA.

"Over time I got more and more involved,'' Mrs. Detwiler said. "It was one of the best things that ever happened to me. I love all these fellas and they love me. They call me 'Mom' or 'Mrs. D.' It almost seems as if they could be my sons.''

She met more "sons'' in Washington on trips to visit The Wall. Her family had never taken her to the memorial. The visits often were painful.

Lawrence Detwiler, Jr., who served in Vietnam with the 196th Light Infantry Brigade, was killed in action Aug. 22, 1969.

"When I place something at his panel, I get really upset,'' she said. "I rub his name and give him a kiss and it seems like I'm embarrassed because I still have to weep when I go to that panel. When I do the Pledge of Allegiance or hear the Star Spangled Banner and see the flag, I still see that flag draped on his casket.''

The first year she went to Washington with her VVA chapter, they found an Army unit reunion being held in the hotel--the 196th, her son's outfit.

"When we walked in the lobby, I saw these fellas, and they had white shirts on and they had the 196th patch on their shirts,'' Mrs. Detwiler said. "We went over and talked to them, and I welcomed them home and thanked them. We spent the evening together and after that they sort of took me in. They said my chapter couldn't have me all the time; they had to share. I've gotten so attached to these fellas. I keep in touch with them all.''

 Ron Edgington finds the attraction mutual.

"To some degree, we all represent a substitute, women and men both,'' he said. "My mother's still living and she [Mrs. Detwiler] is like a second mother to me. Actually, there are some things I talk to her about that I don't talk to my mother about.''

But he has found that there are exceptions, women who do not join Gold Star Mothers or any other organization.

When Edgington served on a committee to build a memorial to World War II veterans, the committee invited women whose children died in combat. One Vietnam-era mother didn't respond. Edgington gathered together pictures of the event and went to her house.

Nervous and unsure of the reception he would get, he struck up a conversation at the woman's door. She invited him inside. He stayed for three hours.

"She dug out every photo and every letter and every medal her son had,'' he said. "He was in the 25th Infantry mechanized, which I knew nothing about, but she had a million questions, asking me about any little common thread. But she never joined Gold Star Mothers. They tried to persuade her, but she wouldn't. But she had this desire to connect.''

Edgington believes the desire to connect is a frequent traveler on the two-way street he says veterans and Gold Star Mothers often travel.

For himself, he sees reminders of his good fortune and the responsibility it brings.

"Believe it or not, the older I get, the more survivor guilt I have,'' he said. "It doesn't incapacitate you, but every day you have something good happen to you, it reminds you of it. I'm incredibly sensitive to those who didn't come back and, of course, to their families. The more your life goes forward in years, the more you realize what these guys didn't get a chance to fulfill.

"Then you look at a Gold Star Mother, and you say,'Jeez, they're going through life having something taken away from them,' '' he said. "I desperately want to fill that void for them, because I know I see that they're happy when vets are around them. It's as close as they're going to get to their sons. It's as close to reality as they're going to have. It's giving them something they can't otherwise have. I really feel that. It's paying back for something we got through the grace of God: we came back.''

Dorothy Detwiler said veterans sometimes come by her house just to talk. One calls her every night to see if she needs anything. His mother has been dead for seventeen years. She thinks she has become his second mother.

She doesn't know if she can help anyone simply by sitting in her house and talking, but she's always available.

"I draw strength from them,'' she said. "They help me and they say I help them. But there are times when I really get low and I need their help as much as they need mine. I could take any of these fellas as my son. They take us just like mothers. I've been blessed by all these veterans.''

Ron Edgington echoes the blessing.

"I feel a reverence among vets for Gold Star moms," he said. "I'll tell you, when one of them walks by it almost makes a drunk man sober. Hell, I don't know what it is. There's something about them.''

 
 
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