Here's What Gold Star Mother's Day Is All About

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Alison Malachowski tends to the grave of her son, U.S. Marine Corps Staff Sgt. James Malachowski, in Section 60 of Arlington National Cemetery, July 22, 2015. Staff Sgt. Malachowski was killed by an improvised explosive device during his fourth combat deployment on March 20, 2011, while his unit was raising the Afghanistan national flag over a small compound near Patrol Base Dakota in Marjah Province. (U.S. Army/Ken Scar)
Alison Malachowski tends to the grave of her son, U.S. Marine Corps Staff Sgt. James Malachowski, in Section 60 of Arlington National Cemetery, July 22, 2015. Staff Sgt. Malachowski was killed by an improvised explosive device during his fourth combat deployment on March 20, 2011, while his unit was raising the Afghanistan national flag over a small compound near Patrol Base Dakota in Marjah Province. (U.S. Army/Ken Scar)

When an active-duty service member dies, his or her mother automatically becomes a Gold Star Mother. It's a distinction that no mother wants, but it's one they wear proudly.

How 'Gold Star' Came to Be

The tradition of the Gold Star began during World War II. During the early days of the war, a blue star was used on service flags and hung in homes and businesses to represent each living active-duty member. As men were killed in combat, the gold star was superimposed on the blue star to honor the person for his ultimate sacrifice to the country. Eventually, the mothers of those fallen service members became known as Gold Star Mothers, and their families Gold Star Families.

There's an Organization to Help Them

While all mothers of fallen service members are considered Gold Star Mothers, there's a veterans service organization they can join for support, known as the American Gold Star Mothers. The group, which has about 1,000 active members, was started in 1928 by one woman -- Grace Darling Seibold. Her son disappeared fighting in World War I, so she spent years working at veterans hospitals in hopes of finding him.

Gold Star Mothers listen during the Commemorative Ceremony for Gold Star Mother's Day in Arlington National Cemetery, Sept. 25, 2016, in Arlington, Va. (U.S. Army/Rachel Larue)
Gold Star Mothers listen during the Commemorative Ceremony for Gold Star Mother's Day in Arlington National Cemetery, Sept. 25, 2016, in Arlington, Va. (U.S. Army/Rachel Larue)

"She met all these other women who were thinking the same thing -- they hadn't heard from their children and went to find them," said Sue Pollard, the 2017 national president of American Gold Star Mothers. "What they found was other children and other mothers who they could support."

Seibold eventually learned of her son's death but continued her community service, organizing a group of mothers of the fallen so they could comfort each other and care for those veterans confined to hospitals far from home.

One Mom's Story

Pollard, a California native, and another Gold Star Mother eventually met and began meeting regularly. They learned of more women like them, so they began to meet as a group. At the time, they didn't even know about the official organization.

Army Spc. Justin Pollard during deployment in Iraq. (Courtesy of the Pollard family)
Army Spc. Justin Pollard during deployment in Iraq. (Courtesy of the Pollard family)

"We had no idea what a Gold Star Mother was," Pollard said. "We started meeting before we knew what we were."

It's All About Support

So why do these women join American Gold Star Mothers? It's pretty simple -- to get support from others who know their pain.

"These moms -- all of us remember each other's children," Pollard said. "We try to remember their birth dates and death dates, and we try to send a text or email or even a card [to their families] and say, 'We're thinking of you,' because we know these are difficult days."

No matter when you start the journey, it's a long one, and it's never over.

"Some of us have been doing this for 14 years. Some have been doing this for 14 days," Pollard said. "In those time periods, though, we all have peaks and valleys, and we all sometimes take a couple of days ... to just sit back and reflect and do things our children would be proud of."

The Group Has Goals

These Gold Star Mothers raise funds for veterans, active-duty service members and their families, as well as other Gold Star families. They're active year-round, visiting veterans at homes and hospitals, taking them snacks and gifts, reading them stories and letting them know someone is always there for them. Around the holidays, they raise funds for Wreaths Across America.

A volunteer place wreaths at a headstone in Section 60 during the Wreaths Across America event at Arlington National Cemetery, Arlington, Virginia, Dec. 16, 2017. (U.S. Army/Elizabeth Faser).
A volunteer place wreaths at a headstone in Section 60 during the Wreaths Across America event at Arlington National Cemetery, Arlington, Virginia, Dec. 16, 2017. (U.S. Army/Elizabeth Faser).

"We want to honor all vets who fought and died for this great country," Pollard said. "We want to give back, because this is what our children did -- they gave. This is to keep their memories alive."

Commemorating Gold Star Mother's Day

Each year the members of American Gold Star Mothers gathers in Washington, D.C. to honor Gold Star Mother's Day.

Candy Martin, president American Gold Star Mothers Inc., gives remarks during the Commemorative Ceremony for Gold Star Mother's Day in Arlington National Cemetery, Sept. 25, 2016, in Arlington, Va. The ceremony marked the 80th Gold Star Mother’s Day. (U.S. Army/Rachel Larue)
Candy Martin, president American Gold Star Mothers Inc., gives remarks during the Commemorative Ceremony for Gold Star Mother's Day in Arlington National Cemetery, Sept. 25, 2016, in Arlington, Va. The ceremony marked the 80th Gold Star Mother’s Day. (U.S. Army/Rachel Larue)

If it weren't for that, Pollard said she would be at home in California, celebrating her son.

"My family usually goes to the cemetery in California where they honor Gold Star Mother Sundays," she said. "And we usually go to lunch or dinner at Justin's favorite restaurant. ... We eat what he would eat, we have a shot of tequila, and we honor him the best way we can."

How Can Other Gold Star Mothers Get Involved?

Sometimes new Gold Star Mothers contact the organization, but other times, the organization has to let them know they're there. Due to privacy issues, it's not always easy.

"We as individual moms have to find these moms ourselves," Pollard said.

Any Gold Star Mothers interested in joining American Gold Star Mothers can contact a chapter in their area. There are also organizations for Gold Star Wives.

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