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

October 1999/November 1999

Pilgrims

By Jim Belshaw

June Martin had never been to Washington. In the twenty-nine years since her son, Stephen, died in combat in Vietnam, she had never seen his name on The Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Friends had taken pictures of it; others had traced it; all of the gestures were appreciated. But she had never stood before it, never let her eyes fall upon the letters etched in the granite.

Marine LCpl. Stephen Boyd was nineteen years old when he stepped on a land mine in the summer of 1970 in Quang Nam. The explosion blew off his legs. He lived for three weeks.

"It seems no matter how many years, you still miss him so much,'' she said.

Ray Mellens and other members of Chapter 20 drove Mrs. Martin to Washington from her home in upstate New York. She laughs about how they braved their way through the edges of Hurricane Floyd. When they got to Washington on that Thursday, the wind howled and the rain came in sheets, but they went to The Wall as soon as they got there.

"It was overwhelming to me,'' she said. "I knew there would be a lot of tears, and then when I saw The Wallthat first time, and I saw all those names, I thought, ‘God forbid. I know I'm not alone. There have been many mothers in my position.' But it helped me to be there.''

The next day they returned. The sky had cleared and the sun was shining. Someone handed her a bouquet of long-stemmed red roses. Someone else gave her a single white rose to leave under his
name. She couldn't bring herself to leave the roses and took them home instead.
 
"Those boys who took me to Washington were all the age of my son,'' she said. "It was a great trip. I'll never forget it. It was so many tears and so much laughter.''
 
The Chapter 20 newsletter had been dedicating each month to someone killed in Vietnam. The June 1998 issue was dedicated to Stephen Boyd. One of the chapter's members attended the same church as Mrs. Martin and took the newsletter to show her the dedication.

She wrote a letter to the chapter to thank the members for honoring her son.

"Toward the end of it, she made a comment about never having been to Washington to see her son's name on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and how she hoped to see it someday before she died, ''Mellens said.

On the third Friday of each September, the chapter traveled to Washington for national POW-MIA Recognition Day.

"We had noticed that nothing was going on at The Wall on that day, and we felt something should be, ''Mellens said. "We've done this two years now, and not even the POW-MIA flag is flying at the memorial.''

This is not the case in Hilton, N.Y., where Mellens noticed a Valvoline Instant Oil Change station with the tallest flag pole he'd seen in his life. He thought it would be a fine place for a POW-MIA flag and broached the idea with the manager of the business. The manager agreed. It turned out he was a Vietnam veteran, too.

"He said, funny you stopped in. I've got three other stations with big flag poles, ''Mellens said. "I said, great, we'll give you the flags. Well, his district manager is just as gung-ho about this. And there are about fourteen or fifteen other stations in this area. Valvoline wrote it up in their national magazine, too.''

When the chapter became aware of Mrs. Martin in 1998, its POW-MIA Recognition Day plans were already made and couldn't be rearranged. So the chapter invited Mrs. Martin to make the trip this year.

"If she had been my mother, I would hope that someone would take her to The Wall, ''Mellens said. "We felt it was an honor to go with her. We have a special bond with her now.''

It is a sentiment not only shared by George Brown of Chapter 67 in Delaware County, Pennsylvania, but one he wishes would be acted upon more vigorously by VVA.

Brown said his chapter had been associated with Gold Star mothers for several years and in the last nine years had made trips to Washington with several of them for special Gold Star Mother ceremonies.

"Their organization isn't just because they lost a son or a daughter in combat,'' Brown said. "These women turned around and went back to help others in VA hospitals, working with guys who were wounded, that sort of thing. They didn't just stay at home with their grief. They went out and made something positive out of it. I like being around them.''
 
This year the chapter took five Gold Star Mothers to Washington. Brown says VVA chapters, especially those within close proximity of Washington, should be actively encouraged to become involved with the group.

"I've tried to espouse the idea that out of all the chapters within a couple of hours Washington, there are maybe three who go down there on a regular basis,'' he said. This year, members of VVA Chapters 67, 451, and 436 attended the ceremonies with their color guards. I want to encourage other chapters to come to Washington and bring Gold Star mothers or even just bring their colors to encourage them. These women are very proud of their children. They never let go of them. They never let go of us, either. It's like a substitute family in both directions.''

Ray Mellens and the members of Chapter 20 traced the name of June Martin's son at The Wall, and at a dinner that first night in Washington presented her with a plaque. She took it home and hung it on the wall with Stephen's photograph and his medals.

"It was hard to go there,'' she said. "I was leery of it. But I got there and said, ‘thank God.' I had prayed and dreamt of it. Those guys who took me were wonderful. I tell them they can all be my sons now. I might have lost one son, but I've gained ten. I'm so glad I went.''
 

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