The Official Voice of Vietnam Veterans of America, Inc. ®
An organization chartered by the U.S. Congress

June/July 2002    
 

Gold Star Wives:
A Network of Widows Who Understand

BY  JIM BELSHAW

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 Wives.

"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 Near's words.

"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 do that.''

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 all widows.''

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 closely together.''

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 members include:

  • 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:

  • 888-479-9788
  • 5510 Columbia Pike, Suite 205
  • Arlington, VA 22204
  • gswives2@aol.com

Membership Services:

   

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