The month of May in the United States contains both Mother’s Day and Memorial Day, two apparently distinct and unrelated holidays.
This May, however, I would like to recognize a remarkable subgroup of mothers: mothers who have lost their son or daughter while serving our country in the armed forces.
Although motherhood has been historically commemorated in various forms throughout the world, President Woodrow Wilson issued a proclamation establishing the first national Mother’s Day holiday one hundred years ago on May 8, 1914. Just a few weeks later, unfortunately, a European assassination in June would touch off a devastating world war that would end the lives of nearly ten million men (some historians now believe this number is significantly higher; some women served in World War I, although it was predominantly men who fought). Those ghastly ten million deaths, obviously and quietly affected mothers in six continents during and after the Great War.
Millions of moms saw their sons drafted or enlist, and leave to fight over there, not knowing if they would return. Many men, of course, did not return. Their mothers, en masse, would have to live with the shattering news that their son was gone from this world. Even to refer to the fallen within such a large statistic runs the risk of minimizing and impersonalizing each mother’s loss. Has the world ever known such breadth of maternal mourning?
The First World War was an unprecedented time when our country established a large army to fight overseas, which is hard for us to imagine now that the U.S. has emerged as the sole world superpower with military presence throughout much of the world. But during World War I, the U.S. armed forces swelled from a mere 140,000 or so to 4.8 million men . . . “doughboys” who answered the call from Uncle Sam with astonishing speed.
During World War I, families began the practice of hanging service banners, although they were not standardized until the Second World War. Blue star banners represented immediate family members serving in the war; gold star banners represented ones who had died while serving.
On May 28, 1918, after the Casualty Cablegrams began delivering the dreaded news, President Wilson approved a suggestion from the Women’s Committee of the Council of National Defenses for women in the U.S. to wear a black armband with a gold star, rather than donning conventional black mourning attire. A new group called American Gold Star Mothers formed a decade later, and is still in existence today. The group offers comfort to mothers who’ve lost a son or daughter while serving, and loving care to hospitalized veterans confined in government hospitals away from home.
Subsequent wars, and even “peacetime,” would regrettably force more mothers to endure the loss of their children serving in the military both abroad and on U.S. soil. It must be unbearably sad to raise a son or daughter to adulthood, only to lose him or her to the violence of the world. There is no greater earthly bond than the love a mother has for her child.
In keeping with Memorial Day, we have not forgotten the ultimate sacrifice made by soldier sons and daughters. As the book of John 15:13 (NIV) states, along with many headstones of fallen sons and daughters throughout the world: Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.
In turn, we have also not forgotten the unique sacrifice made by these mothers who have relinquished their children. We have not forgotten the crushing grief they have suffered.
Jennifer Rude Klett is a freelance writer and former journalist (www.jrudeklett.com) living in Delafield, Wis., the daughter-in-law of Fred and Joanne Klett of Beloit. She is the author of a nonfiction book, Alamo Doughboy: Marching Into The Heart Of Kaiser’s Germany During World War I (Branden Books, 2014). Klett is the mother of two sons ages 24 and 21.