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Your Turn: Gold Star Wives find a bond in their losses

It was a muggy July evening in 1945 when five young women, whose husbands had died in World War II, traveled to Hyde Park, N.Y, to meet with First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt.

Mrs. Roosevelt later wrote in her news column, My Day, “…they came for supper, and then went to Poughkeepsie [where] the Lafayette Post of the American Legion had given them permission to use a room... It was a small meeting, though the casualties among servicemen from Dutchess County were pretty high.”

These five widows had first met in Marie Jordan’s apartment in New York City to talk about how they might band together to support the needs of all war widows and their children. After Marie’s husband, Edward Jordan, had died in combat in 1944 in Alsdorf, Germany, she scanned newspapers for the death notices of other fallen soldiers and the names of their widows.

She called a few who lived close by and invited them to lunch at her apartment where she lived with her small son. Losing a spouse in combat meant also losing medical care, commissary privileges and even a place to live if they stayed in military housing. Many widows had married young and had no job training. They had little or no resources from the U.S. government and often relied on the charity of family and friends. Out of desperation, Marie and four other widows formed a support group called the American Widows of WWII.

Their appeal to Roosevelt was auspicious. After her husband’s death, she counted herself among them and became one of the original signers of the group’s charter. The name was changed to Gold Star Wives of America in 1948, and the mission expanded to seek benefits for both the spouse and children of persons who died in war and as a result of service-connected illness.

Today, there are more than 7,000 active members of Gold Star Wives and approximately 80,000 more survivors who are eligible for membership. Local chapters are scattered in all parts of the United States, and members-at-large throughout the world.

The organization is primarily supported by membership dues and by the legacies of several thankful members.

It is not a group that one covets simply because of the very fact of how you become eligible. Its membership represents courageous spouses from all backgrounds obliged to enter a different battle: to continue to protect the pensions, rights and privileges of all survivors.

They have pushed to ensure Social Security credit for servicemen, grant home loan benefits to war widows and widowers and expand medical care for Army personnel.

GSW is not limited to women. Anyone whose spouse dies in combat or from combat-related causes is eligible to join.

It is a busy organization with many opportunities to participate. Members log thousands of hours each year as volunteers at VA hospitals and veterans service organizations. They participate in recognition ceremonies for veterans, and partner with Wreaths Across America, the Fiftieth Anniversary Commemoration of the Vietnam War, and the Snowball Express, an annual event for children of deceased military veterans.

A legislative committee continuously monitors the status of legislation relative to pensions, medical insurance, and education services for survivors. All GSW members search out other survivors who may not know about their eligibility for military benefits.

However, membership is not required to receive benefits from the government as a survivor.

Gold Star Wives of America was created to act as a guardian of benefits for all eligible spouses and children. In a 2005 interview with the Nimitz Education and Research Center, Marie Jordan Speer said she and her fellow GSW members were, at first, “naïve” when they started meeting with their local representatives, not knowing the arduous process of passing laws. But they went on to victories on Capitol Hill.

“We took up one thing at a time,” she said during the interview. “Nobody ever taught us anything about how to lobby in Congress, but we learned fast.”

At the National Convention of Gold Star Wives held in Denver in 2014, I was one of a group of Vietnam War widows who were acknowledged as part of the Commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the Vietnam War. My husband, Capt. David R. Crocker Jr., was killed in combat in 1969 in Tay Ninh Province.

As I glanced around the soaring classical style rotunda of the Colorado State Capitol at my fellow survivors from all wars going back to WWII, each wearing the organization’s signature gold color, I thought of those five women back in 1945 who were still so recently bereaved at that first meeting, but had the courage to say: “We can do this. We can survive. Perhaps we can even thrive.”

Marie Jordan Speer continued to help the organization thrive until her death in 2019 at the age of 98.

Today, I am privileged to be the editor of the National Newsletter of Gold Star Wives of America, but I dream that someday we will no longer need such an organization. Until then, we will continue the battle to remain visible for the sake of all who become “survivors” of war.

For more information, visit goldstarwives.org.

Ruth W. Crocker lives in Mystic. Visit her website at ruthwcrocker.com.

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