National organization brings the women together,
but they don’t sit around feeling sorry for each other, says member
By Sgt. Michael Connors
79th Sustainment Support Command
They are the women boldly wearing white from head to toe whom you may see gathered at a patriotic ceremony, or at a VA hospital volunteering. The garb of American Gold Star Mothers, as opposed to traditional mourning black, conveys more than personal loss: The white outfit symbolizes honor and glory of a son or daughter who has made the ultimate sacrifice for country.
American Gold Star Mothers—a national, nondenominational, nonpolitical and nonprofit organization—was organized in 1928 and incorporated in 1929 in Washington, D.C. It finds its origin, however, in a group of Gold Star Mothers formed in Washington, D.C., during World War I. In 1984, it was granted a Congressional charter. Just as relevant today as it has been since its inception, American Gold Star Mothers is both a support group for mothers who have lost children in the military and a service organization that helps veterans.
Nancy Soltes, a Mission Viejo, Calif., resident and member of the Saddleback Valley chapter, said local American Gold Star Mothers are involved in numerous volunteer activities. These include working at the VA hospital and the Camp Pendleton hospital, sending fleece blankets and cooling vests to deployed service members, and serving as guardians on honor flights to Washington, D.C., for World War II veterans visiting the National World War II Memorial.
“I would like it highlighted that we’re not a group of women who are sitting around feeling sorry for ourselves,” said Soltes, who lost her son, Charles Soltes Jr., in 2004 when he was serving in Iraq as a civil affairs officer. “Whether we’re down at Camp Pendleton … whether it’s the fundraiser for the cooling vest project, whether it’s making blankets, most of the moms are involved, and their involvement is specifically directed at the military and veterans.”
Nationwide, there are fewer than 3,000 members in the organization. Soltes acknowledged that many mothers are reluctant to join because of the painful emotional circumstances, but she said involvement helps mothers process and deal with their loss.
“Making that first meeting is one of the hardest things to do,” said Soltes, “and the whole first meeting is tough … when you tell people your story. Then you look around and you realize that everyone else in the room has been there.”
After the initial step of joining the organization “there’s a distinct benefit,” Soltes said. She spoke about one mother who only recently joined after 10 years of struggling with the loss of her son. The mother hadn’t known about the existence of the organization until recently.
“She feels so much better since she joined our group,” said Soltes. “She’s now become involved, she’s a very active volunteer at the Long Beach VA, she’s very active in our whole organization.”
Soltes also pointed out that, like the woman who wasn’t aware of American Gold Star Mothers until many years after her son’s death, many others may not know about the organization either. She said it may be that chaplains and casualty affairs officers simply may not know of the organization, and therefore may not refer families to it.
“It sometimes is hard to get the word out,” Soltes said. “We’ve had mothers who’ve gone a year or two before they’ve heard about us, and probably most of them could have used some extra support during that time. When they finally give us a call or come to one of our meetings, they always feel so relieved that there is a group that they can go with, or people that they can talk with who really understand.”
A badge of honor for family members
The word doesn’t always seem to get out about the Gold Star Lapel Pin either, said Soltes, which American Gold Star Mothers proudly wear on their white outfits. There are actually two pins issued by the government, the other being the Next of Kin Lapel Pin. The Gold Star Lapel Pin, which has a purple background, signifies the loss of a service member in combat, while the Next of Kin Lapel Pin, without a purple background, is for noncombat loss, such as a training accident. However, mothers eligible for either pin are welcome to join American Gold Star Mothers, according to the organization’s Web site.
Soltes pointed out that the pins, which have been associated with Gold Star Mothers over the years, are actually for all immediate family members. If not provided through a casualty affairs officer, the Gold Star Lapel Pin may be obtained by submitting DD Form 3. To obtain the Next of Kin Lapel Pin, if not provided, family members must make a request in writing to the National Personnel Records Center, according to the American Gold Star Mothers Web site. The pins have traditionally been worn with civilian attire, but a recent change to Army Regulation 670-1 authorizes wear of the Gold Star Lapel Pin on the army green uniform by soldiers who have lost an immediate family member in combat.
A home for mothers, veterans
In addition to supporting mothers and veterans, American Gold Star Mothers is affiliated with American Gold Star Manor in Long Beach, Calif. It provides government-supported housing for seniors 62 or older, with priority going to American Gold Star Mothers and veterans. The complex has 348 independent-living apartments located in a secure 23-acre, park-like setting. Monthly rent is typically $300 to $400, said Terry Geiling, president of American Gold Star Manor.
“My mantra around here is clean, quiet, safe, and comfortable,” he said. That mantra can be seen borne out at the facility. The grounds are lush and upkeep is meticulous. Residents can maintain their own individual gardens. Amenities include a banquet hall, swimming pool, exercise room, computer center with Internet access, and Internet availability in all apartments. Special attention is paid to keeping residents engaged through activities and outings: coffee and newspapers every morning, computer classes taught by local college students, holiday parties, pancake breakfasts, rummage sales, movie night, bingo night, and even organized trips to outside attractions such as nearby Indian casinos. “This is way beyond a job for me, this is a labor of love,” added Geiling.
The stamp that Geiling has put on American Gold Star Manor over his two years at the helm can be attributed to his wealth of experience. In addition to serving as a Navy officer, he had a career at IBM working in computer technology, which has translated to an emphasis on having the latest resources for residents. The computer lab, computer classes, wireless Internet access in common areas, and Internet connections in all the apartments has been instituted under his leadership.
His experience is also based on living in Hawaii for many years during his time in the Navy. He said that he encourages the Hawaiian concept of “ohana” at the Manor, which could be best translated as residents relating to each other as extended family. To that aim, he facilitates holiday and cultural celebrations in the banquet hall and maintains a tradition of beginning each event by saying hello in a number of languages, a reflection of the diversity among residents.
For Geiling, however, the verdant setting, computers, and family spirit seem to be just the beginning for this man with a vision for the full potential of the community. He has an eye on making the facility “totally green” as he put it.
“My motto is we have to keep the Manor green, but we have to make it green,” he said in regard to two of his focuses—maintaining the landscape and adopting energy efficient technology. He is currently working with the Department of Housing and Urban Development on financing for improvements including solar energy, drought tolerant plantings, and automated sprinklers. “One, we’ll be a model HUD community, and two, we’ll be a model community for the whole area,” he added resolutely.
Geiling’s vision also includes expanding the eligibility for American Gold Star Mothers and veterans by lowering or easing age requirements. He said he is currently working with legislators to do so. He emphasized that many mothers of recently deceased service members are not senior citizens, but he feels they should be eligible for the Manor nonetheless.
Ultimately, Geiling sees the Manor as not only an excellent residential community, but as a hub for veterans groups in the area to gather. The grounds and banquet hall are ideal for meetings, ceremonies and parties. “This has been the best kept secret in town, and I’m trying to turn that around,” he said.
For all Geiling, his staff, and the residents have done at the Manor, perhaps the most appreciated addition is a new mosaic-tiled memorial set off from the main open-grass area. Rising from a pool, columns feature bronze insignia plaques for each branch of service. Water trickles from the top of the columns. At night, accent lights add a glimmer to the water as it makes its way to the bottom.
“I wanted something that was very dignified and subdued,” said Geiling, “but still had a sense of permanence.”
For more information on American Gold Star Mothers, Inv., www.goldstarmoms.com, 202-265-0991, 2128 Leroy Place, NW, Washington, D.C. 20008.
There is currently a waiting list to establish residence at American Gold Star Manor. For more information: 562-426-7651, 3021 N. Gold Star Drive, Long Beach, CA 90810.