GREENVILLE — Dec. 7, 1941, a date that, according to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, would live in infamy.
It also was a date that would forever change the face of America. With the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the Japanese military brought the United States into a war upon which the country would eventually expend 418,500 lives, most of them young men.
From homes, farms and factories across the nation, these men answered the call to action, leaving friends, families, loved ones. Too many never made it home again and few among those who did came home unchanged.
Mothers at home waited for news of sons and daughters serving overseas, hoping, praying that the news would be good; that there would be no delivery of folded flags, no letters of condolence from commanding officers. For the most part, these mothers waited alone. One can only imagine their feelings of impotence and isolation. Many wanted to lend some support to the war effort, and by doing so support their sons.
But it wasn’t until January of 1942 that the Flint News Advertiser printed a coupon asking mothers of service men whether they would be interested in forming a group to perform war-related service projects. More than 1,000 positive responses poured in and the following month, the Blue Star Mothers was officially registered on congressional record.
Chapters quickly formed in Michigan, Ohio, Wisconsin, New York, Pennsylvania, Oregon, California, Iowa and Washington.
Throughout the duration of the war, Blue Star Mothers volunteered in hospitals and train stations; they made up care packages for soldiers. In later years the group even became part of homeland security during times of war.
Though the organization’s membership diminished following the end of WWII, it never disbanded completely. And in recent years, for reasons all too obvious to anyone who reads a newspaper or watches television, the group’s membership has again begun to grow.
Following the events of Sept. 11, 2001, the Blue Star Mothers moved again to the forefront, showing their pride in sons and daughters who — yet again — were called upon to protect this nation’s freedom.
In Kent, Montcalm and Ionia counties, the Blue Star Mothers is captained by local chapter President Deann Oliver and Vice President Kathy Barnes. Oliver’s youngest son, Mitchell, is currently serving in U.S. Army in Campbell, KY, after having completed a tour of duty in Afghanistan. Barnes’ sons, Andrew Barnes and Jay Yearsovich, have both served overseas.
Both mothers have found solace in the Blue Star Mothers, along with a way in which to do their part to help the war effort. Barnes has been a member longest, since 2010, when she learned of a local chapter forming nearby shortly after her younger son’s deployment.
“I had heard of the group, but didn’t know that one was forming in our area,” Barnes explained. “I wanted to support the troops, since I knew my boy was going to war. When Jay was deployed to Iraq I had nobody who really understood what it’s like to miss a call from a different area code, because he’d be calling from the other side of the world. I was also looking for somebody to support me.”
Barnes found that support with the Blue Star Mothers, as had so many military mothers before her.
Even though, as of June 3, she will no longer have sons in the military — both having served the terms of their enlistments — she plans to continue with the group.
“I’ll stay in because there’s always going to be a soldier, an airman, a sailor or a marine who needs a mom,” she said. “I plan to be there.” Barnes also remains with the organization to help other mothers, like herself, who have sons and daughters going off to unknown dangers in lands far from home, mothers like Oliver, whose youngest son, Mitchell, is a specialist in the Army, who returned from his tour of Afghanistan in March of last year.
Mitchell, a 2011 graduate of Greenville High School, joined the Army partly to fund his college education. Also, her son was following a long family tradition of military service, his father having served in the Marine Corp.
According to Oliver, her son was infantry “all the way.”
“There was no convincing him to do anything else,” Oliver said. “It’s just a mindset you cannot change.”
Oliver herself did not come from a military background and had mixed feelings and many apprehensions about her son’s decision to serve.
“I wasn’t military, so I didn’t know how to handle it,” Oliver said. “I didn’t know what to do. I was kind of torn. I wanted to give him 110 percent support; it breaks your heart and at the same time you’re proud. I can’t help but have a quiet pride for what he’s doing.”
Even so, it was hard to say goodbye to her young son, whose only worries just a few years prior had been ACT scores and which girl to ask to prom. Fortunately, Oliver had heard of the Blue Star Mothers and made the call. Barnes answered the phone.
“Deann called me when her son was getting ready to deploy,” Barnes said. “She found one of my cards and we met for coffee. By then, I could look into the eyes of a mother whose child is in the military and we don’t even have to use words. We just met each other and we sat and cried together and held hands and promised we’d be supportive.”
The group offers much more than emotional support, however. The Blue Star Mothers provides support not only to active servicemen and women, but also to veterans. The local chapter performs all manner of volunteer work at the Grand Rapids Home for Veterans throughout the year, handling needs which might otherwise go unfulfilled.
The most difficult task the group sets for itself, and perhaps the most important, is offering support to mothers whose children have been killed in action.
“We have a blue to gold ceremony we perform at funerals, if that’s OK with the mothers,” Oliver explained. “We put together a memory book with all the articles about their son. We go to the funeral and present a banner with their son’s name on it, and then, as much as possible, if they are interested, we try to keep in contact with them. Of course, we leave it up to them, but we are definitely there to provide any sort of support. Just to have that is so important.”
Once her son returns from military service, Oliver plans to continue serving with the group that has offered her so much succor throughout the duration of her son’s military career.
“I guess I’ll be like Kathy Barnes,” Oliver said. “She’s a lifer. There are always going to be mothers of people going into the military and they’re always going to need someone who’s been there and done that. I’m hoping that down the road, my experience will be able to help someone with a son or daughter just entering the military.”
The local chapter of the Blue Star Mothers meets at 6 p.m. the third Monday of every month at the American Legion Post in Greenville. More information about the group is available at (616) 894-0144.