Even though the war in Iraq appears to be winding down, bullets are still flying in Baghdad. At home many Americans are displaying the familiar colors of Old Glory in support of U.S. troops. But another emblem of red, white and blue has begun to appear in the front windows of some U.S. homes and businesses. The blue star service banner is hung by families who have loved ones serving in the military during wartime. Its 86-year history began right here in Ohio. But few now recall how widely it appeared during WWII or what it meant to the neglected veterans of the Vietnam era. ideastream's Karen Schaefer profiles the blue star program - and reminds us what it means when blue stars turn to gold.
It's a small, cloth banner, a little longer than it is wide, its white ground edged in red. In the center is a blue star. Since 1917 that star has been a symbol of military service during wartime. An Ohio 5th Infantry Army captain designed the banner to show his support for his two sons serving in the trenches in World War I. Susan Naill, national director of the Blue Stars Mothers of America, says he took his design to the War Department.
Susan Naill: And they had three pages full of reasons why they couldn't sanction its use. So he patented the banner and the mayor of Cleveland hoisted it up for the first time - I believe that was in September of 1917.
Naill says the Blue Star Mothers organization itself was born during World War II, when another Army captain ran a story in a Michigan newspaper asking parents for information about their children serving in the Armed Forces. More than a thousand mothers replied. Since then, Naill says the Blue Star Mothers have worked to keep the tradition alive. But even she has been surprised at the surge of renewed interest in the banner since the war in Iraq began. Rick Alatorre says he, too was unprepared for the overwhelming response when his Canton chapter of the American Red Cross decided last month to buy 500 of the banners to give to local families with a son or daughter serving overseas.
Rick Alatorre: The Associated Press ran this article and I don't know how far they ran it. But we've gotten calls from out of state. I've been told by some of my volunteers that were working on it, we were getting calls from Michigan, we were getting calls from Pennsylvania.
Alatorre says his agency received more than 14-hundred requests for blue stars. When he couldn't fulfill them all, local veterans groups stepped in. But the intense popularity of the blue star banner came as no surprise to Red Cross caseworker Ruth Wade. She was just a little girl when blue stars blossomed in the windows of Canton families during World War II.
Ruth Wade: What they did was, it was like a support group. And they had, like a girls' unit. And if I remember correctly, I think it was called the Service Star Girls or the Service Star League. And basically what we did was to help the mothers. And letters were really important. And we helped send out the mail. I can remember sitting and just absolutely glued to that radio for, my gosh, what was going to happen next. And then you got maybe fifteen minutes of news. And then that was all you had to go by. And so that's why things like the war bond drives and the blue star program were so important. And it's good for the mothers, too, because it, it gives them a chance to show their pride... in their sons... and how honored they are to have these boys - and girls now - in the Service. And, oh, they seem so young. But they're not, they're--. They're the best we have to offer.
World War II saw the most widespread use of the banner. The Defense Department took over the patent of the emblem, which it holds to this day. Interest declined during the Korean conflict, the first U.S. war fought without a formal declaration.
But it was during the war in Vietnam that the banner's popularity sank to its lowest ebb. Instead of being welcomed home as war heroes, soldiers who'd been drafted to fight in the steaming jungles of Southeast Asia returned home to find themselves vilified as war mongers by angry Americans. Susan Naill of the Blue Star Mothers - whose own son fought in the Persian Gulf War - says families had to fight public opinion when they hung the banners in their windows. Rick Alatorre of the Canton Red Cross says he believes that's one reason why blue stars are making a comeback today.
Rick Alatorre: Whether it's the American flag, whether it's a T-shirt saying 'support our troops,' whether it's the blue star - there is a desire for people to show that they recognize what their families are going through.
But the real strength of the blue star program lies in the solidarity of support that comes when a blue star turns to gold. Ruth Wade recalls what happened during World War II when a telegram arrived with the terrible news of injury - or death.
Ruth Wade: Well, I don't think I was ever around a mother when she got that news. And then you – you got another star to sew on there. Silver star mothers, those were the ladies whose sons or daughters had been wounded or injured. And then there were the gold star mothers, and those were the ladies that had lost a child. It was anguish with the mothers and the sadness with the finality of, well, he's not coming home.
Gold stars are still added to the banner when a soldier dies. So far, two Ohio families have been told their sons will not be coming home. Many like Susan Naill are worried about what will happen to veterans who do return, only to struggle with lives permanently altered by the experience of war. But she and thousands like her take comfort in the knowledge that the blue star program is still there for military families in their time of greatest need. In Canton, Karen Schaefer, 90.3.