Carol Near's husband, Thomas, was a Vietnam veteran who died
in 1996, a victim of cancer
linked to Agent Orange exposure. The government sent her
informational materials. Among
them she found an application for membership in Gold Star Wives,
the organization of widows
of men who had served in the armed forces and died either in
armed conflict or as a result of
service-connected disabilities. She had never heard of Gold Star
"I was very surprised to find these people," she said. "I was
very, very surprised."
The Gold Star Wives (GSW) national president, Aseneth Blackwell,
said Carol Near's surprise is
not unusual. Unlike its better-known counterpart, Gold Star
Mothers, Gold Star Wives operates
not so much in the shadows as under the radar, a condition
Blackwell says GSW is actively
working to change.
"If you look at our membership, we have more than 14,000," she
said. "Gold Star Mothers has
an actual, card-carrying membership of around 2,000, but they're
very active. That's the key.
They have been more active, more out front. We've been sort of
low key, which we're in the
process of changing."
When Carol Near of East Moline, Illinois, joined GSW, she found
herself "not alone,'' - perhaps
the biggest surprise of all.
"Even though all of us are widows, it's the only thing we have
in common,'' she said. "When
you speak with different women, it's like when you read the
history of the Vietnam War and they
say every soldier had a different war. It's the same thing with
Gold Star Wives. When you listen
to their stories, your own story seems not so bad. It's a
network of widows who understand you.
I've become a real advocate of Gold Star Wives.''
Blackwell and Near each speak to what they say is a mistaken
image of GSW - "a pity party'' in
"When I go to meetings with them, they don't sit around and
say, 'Oh, woe is me, the poor
widow,' '' she said. "Most of the women in the chapter I belong
to are older than I am. I'm a
Vietnam-era widow and most of them are from World War II and
Korea. Younger widows who
don't belong to GSW might think it's a pity party, but we don't
Blackwell underscores the thought.
"A lot of our newer members, after they join, say it isn't what
they expected,'' the GSW
president said. "They thought all we did was sit around and
complain and cry about being a
widow. We don't do that. We're an active group, and we don't
work just for our members but for
Near, who recently completed a project that resulted in Gold
Star Mothers and Gold Star Wives
memorials being placed at the Rock Island National Cemetery in
Illinois, said her husband, like
many Vietnam veterans, was a "classic non-joiner.'' He did not
belong to any veterans groups
until the last years of his life when he joined with veterans at
a local Vet Center.
Near, herself, belongs to Associates of Vietnam Veterans of
America, but did not join until 1998,
when she traveled to Springfield, Illinois, for a POW-MIA vigil.
"My husband and I didn't know anything about VVA. That's sad,
because there are so many
wonderful people involved in it,'' she said. "There's so much a
spouse or widow can find out.
After I met the veterans in Springfield, we began communicating,
and I received information on
VVA and I joined Chapter 299. I would really like to see Gold
Star Wives and VVA work more
In each of the organizations, Near comes to the same conclusion
about the most important
benefit - information and friendship. She said even now, five
years after her husband's death, she
still comes across beneficial material she had not known about.
"My biggest advice is, 'Network, network, network,' '' she
said. "So many people like Vietnam
veterans aren't joining organizations, and they don't have that
network to get the information. All
of this for me grew out of Gold Star Wives and the VVA. The
message is simple: 'You're not alone.' ''
Just the Facts, Ma'am
Gold Star Wives of America, Inc., is a nonprofit national
service organization that was incorporated in the state of New York on December 15, 1945.
Its members are the women whose husbands died while serving in the armed forces or as a
result of service-connected disabilities. Gold Star Wives was granted a federal charter on December 4,
1980, which recognized the organization as unique and capable of providing a service not
available from any other organization. Its members appear before various House and
Senate committees to testify on such issues as compensation, educational benefits, medical care,
and other programs pertaining to the welfare of widows.
The organization's promise: "We pledge to work diligently
and unselfishly in the interest of all who have been called upon in a very personal way to share in
the 'last full measure of devotion' to our country and mankind.''
Gold Star Wives dues are $15 a year. Its support services for
- Networking with local chapters around the country.
- E-mail listserve for members that provides immediate updates
on new benefits
- and the ability to contact members for answers to questions,
for advice, and for other information that may be helpful for military widows.
- Veterans and Memorial Day programs.
- Quarterly newsletter on member activities, as well as
legislation and educational information.
Gold Star Wives members also conduct a wide variety of
volunteer work in their communities and in VA hospitals.
Its legislative information service provides members with
information on issues such as DIC Direct Deposit, Medicare, Remarriage Reinstatement, updates
to military beneficiaries, Cost-of-Living Adjustment
information, TRICARE, the VA Civilian Health and Medical
Program, and more.
It advocates for all service widows and their children. Some
of the areas covered are increased death compensation for DIC recipients, improved health
benefits, and enhanced educational assistance projects.
Washington Liaison Office: