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

March/April 2003
 
 
 

THE AWFUL HONOR:
Gold Star Mothers Watch Another War

BY JIM BELSHAW

A new war looms. Memories come with it. Two mothers watch new deployments -Marines trudging onto ships, aircraft carriers sailing from ports, planes leaving bases -and old feelings come with it. Tears are shed again, final conversations are replayed. One mother says her body rebels so at the memory that she becomes ill. They see sons leaving, never to return.

It's as if it's happening all over again. Dorothy Oxendine's son, Willie F. Oxendine III, a Marine, killed in action on May 30, 1968, at Quang Tri; Ann Sherman Wolcott's son, Rex Marcel Sherman, an Army infantryman on a long-range reconnaissance patrol, killed in action on Nov. 19, 1969. The mothers watch the TV news, and it's as if no time has passed.

"I watch all those Marines being deployed, and the families hugging and crying, and the tears roll down my face," Dorothy Oxendine, National President of the American Gold Star Mothers, said. "It's like a dream sometimes, and other times it's like it just happened. It's like a gush inside of you, in your heart, and it still hurts."

Ann Sherman Wolcott, the Gold Star Mothers National First Vice President, remembers becoming physically ill during the Gulf War. Her blood pressure skyrocketed. She developed colitis. Yet she can't take her eyes off the events swirling around her now. "I'm cognizant of what's going on in the world," she said. "I can't stop reading about it. I get upset, and it's like I'm living it again. This past year or so, and particularly now, it's really bothering me."

The Gold Star Mothers' membership is dwindling, down now to 1,200 members. The
organization is seemingly stuck in a time warp that keeps it locked in the World War II era - or no era at all. The women tell stories of widespread ignorance that keeps Gold Star Mothers a kind of secret locked away from the minds of most Americans.

Dorothy Oxendine has a license-plate story. Her New York plates identify her as a Gold Star Mother. People stop her or call the motor vehicle department and ask where they can get one like hers. They say their mothers deserve a gold star, too, and it would make a lovely Christmas gift or birthday present.

An Army general once agreed to speak to Gold Star Mothers. He admitted later he had to go to the library to identify his audience. He said the librarian didn't know, either.

When Gold Star Mothers wear their white uniforms, Ann Sherman Wolcott said, they often are mistaken for nurses or WAVES or Girl Scout leaders. But the most surprising, she said, are military personnel who don't have a clue about who a Gold Star Mother is.

"My son belonged to a prestigious airborne unit out of Fort Benning," she said. "I go down once in a while. One time I saw these young Rangers and I asked them if they knew what a Gold Star Mother was. I talked to dozens of them. None of them knew. I said this is what your mother would look like if you died in combat. Their faces just dropped. They were embarrassed."

Then there was the colonel she worked for in Hawaii.

"I wore my Gold Star Mother pin to the officers club," she said. "In front of a large group of people, he said, 'Oh, Annie's wearing her gold star. She must have been a good girl today.' Everybody laughed. I explained what it meant. He had never heard of it. But it doesn't matter what the rank is. I've talked to generals who didn't know."

What bothered her for years was the sense of being alone, the sense of having made such a painful sacrifice only to be ignored after the fact.

"There's no respect, there's no help, there's no counseling - there's nothing,'"she said.
"Everybody forgets about you. You're alone."

Gold Star Mothers is locked in a paradox - its membership ebbs while the price of belonging is so steep that its president would be happy never to see another mother in a position to join. It is open and welcome to the thousands of mothers who have paid the price, yet it would prefer that no more become eligible.

"We get e-mail and telephone calls that make it clear people don't know what a Gold Star Mother is,'" Dorothy Oxendine said. "Some mothers have called because their sons are being deployed [for Iraq]. I tell them they don't want to join the Gold Star Mothers. They really don't want to be eligible."

The World War II and Korean War generations have passed. The Vietnam War generation ages. Dorothy Oxendine finds solace in other Vietnam veterans, her son's "brothers."

"Ten years ago, I went up to a group of Vietnam veterans in the Calverton National Cemetery on Long Island," she said. "They were so grateful I went up to talk to them, and they said, 'You don't have to do anything for us. We want to do for you, but we didn't know how to talk to you.' They didn't know how to break the ice. They thought we would resent them because they came home and our sons didn't. From that day on, I felt like every single one of them belonged to me. I had lost my only son, and I became the best friends in the world with these Vietnam veterans. It was such a nice feeling."

She still looks for someone who served with her son, Willie F. Oxendine III, in the 3rd Battalion, 26th Marines, I Company, 1st Platoon. When he died, his commanding officer wrote to her and said they had nicknamed him "Ox" because he worked like one.

At a Marine reunion last July, she thought she had found one of her son's buddies, but the promised meeting didn't happen.

"A Marine e-mailed the man in charge of the reunion," she said. "He said he was three feet away from Ox when he was killed and helped put his body on the helicopter. He said he would do anything to put a smile on my face. I e-mailed him, but I never heard from him. I guess it was hard for me to say, 'Could you talk to me?' but when push came to shove, it was hard for him to contact me. I thought about calling him. I guess I should do it. Why? I want to know how my son was the last few days of his life. It would be like part of my son being there."

His name on The Wall brings the finality home to her, yet she goes to the memorial frequently. She has a sense of him there; she can't stay away from it.

"I have to go there all the time," she said. "It's like all those names, all those spirits, all the spirits of the people who go there and touch it and pray and leave things, it's like a movement. You can feel something when you're there."

 

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