The service organization created on behalf of mothers who lost children to military service may consider changing eligibility rules in the face of the growing coronavirus pandemic.
It’s an issue that came up for American Gold Star Mothers Inc. last month in a question from Military Times, after Army Capt. Douglas Linn Hickok died from coronavirus. As the virus attacks more personnel — a sailor aboard the aircraft carrier Theodore Roosevelt became the second service member and first active-duty troop to die — the issue is likely to become even more pressing.
Hickok, 57, was a traditional drilling Guardsman with the New Jersey National Guard, who was not on active duty orders at the time of his death, according to a spokeswoman. As such, were his mother still alive, she would not be eligible for membership in the organization founded in 1928 to provide support and comfort for grieving mothers of service members. Vivian Hickok died in 2004, according to her granddaughter, Shandrea Hickok.
To accommodate mothers whose children are not on active duty, “our membership organization will need to change criteria and guidelines on how we operate,” Mona Gunn, president of American Gold Star Mothers Inc. told Military Times. “It is something we may want to consider looking at.”
This would not be an issue for the mother of the aircraft carrier Theodore Roosevelt sailor, who died after contracting coronavirus aboard ship. He was on active duty at the time, and as such, his mother, if alive, would be eligible to join the organization.
Interest in ammending the rules will likely only increase as the active status of National Guard troops fluctuates amid an ever-present risk of contracting the virus. As of Monday morning, more than 2,550 service members had tested positive for coronavirus, including more than 500 Guard troops.
Gunn, 67, of Norfolk, Virginia, knows all too well the pain that comes with losing a child to military service, and says joining the organization has helped her immensely.
Her son, Navy SMSN Cherone Gunn, was one of the 17 sailors killed in the terrorist attack onboard the destroyer Cole on October 12, 2000.
“He followed his dad's footsteps by joining the Navy,” said Gunn. “My husband had a very successful 21-year career in the U.S. Navy. My son's time in the Navy was nine months and the attack happened on his first deployment. He was 22 years old and one of four boys.”
Gunn said joining American Gold Star Mothers Inc. helped her by putting her in contact with a small group of women who are among the few who truly understand her loss.
“We are moms and we bond together with each other,” said Gunn, a retired school principal. “This is a membership organization, and the benefit is you finally meet with someone who really, truly knows what it feels like to be on this journey in having lost a child to service of this county.”
The need for such fellowship, said Gunn, is especially important in the weeks and months after the dreaded knock on the door, when condolences fade, the shock subsides and the loss really sinks in.
“I think about how I received information about the organization and how my Next of Kin pin was presented to me,” she said.
“I would love to see this process changed. Presenting a Gold Star Lapel or Next of Kin pin to the family within the first two weeks of their child’s death is not the right time. Two weeks after the burial you are still filled with pain and shock and all you want is your child back. Sometimes there is a lot of anger as well because you have a lot of questions that aren’t being answered.”
A common misunderstanding, meanwhile, is that the organization is only for mothers whose children have died in combat. In reality, combat deaths, training deaths, illnesses, and death by suicide are all treated the same, Gunn said.
Though nearly 7,000 troops have died since 9/11, and many others have taken their own lives, American Gold Star Mothers Inc. only has about 1,000 members, said Gunn, adding that many mothers can’t bring themselves to join.
Those who do become part of the organization joins a membership that helps those who served and “strengthens the fellowship of other Gold Star moms and keeps their children’s memories alive,” said Gunn.
Back before the pandemic members could be found volunteering at VA hospitals, Gunn said. Now, with folks confined to homes, they are taking a different approach.
One Gold Star mom in Texas, for example, is making masks and giving them to hospital medical personnel, Gunn said.
Gunn said the unique circumstances presented by COVID-19 require organization members to keep tabs on troop deaths in order to follow up on future outreach efforts.
“Our organization is never notified of a military death by the Department of Defense,” Gunn said. “We do receive the Daily Digest Bulletins announcing the death of service members killed in operations overseas. However, all we can do is watch the news for service members who may die of COVID-19 because that information doesn’t come in the DoD’s Daily Bulletin.”
The process of reaching out to mothers who have just lost a child to service, however, is extraordinarily taxing.
“Having gone through the process of having a child killed while on active duty, the timing for outreach is critical,” she said. “The immediate family and friends provide all the support needed in the first few weeks when dealing with the loss of a child.”
If you or someone you know is in the National Guard responding to COVID-19, please contact Military Times managing editor Howard Altman, email@example.com, if you are interested in sharing about your experience.
Howard Altman is an award-winning editor and reporter who was previously the military reporter for the Tampa Bay Times and before that the Tampa Tribune, where he covered USCENTCOM, USSOCOM and SOF writ large among many other topics.