BETHESDA — A mother arrives at the Red Cross office at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center on a mission for her son, a 23-year-old soldier and double amputee. He needs a back scratcher.
With her bright eyes and wide smile, volunteer Janice Chance gives her that and more — a reassuring rub on the arm and an offer to do anything else she can for the soldier, who is visiting the hospital for tests.
Marine Capt. Jesse Melton III, the oldest of Chance's three children, was killed by a roadside bomb in Afghanistan in 2008. Soon after his death, the Owings Mills woman began volunteering with the Red Cross at Walter Reed and in the emergency room at the Baltimore Veterans Affairs Medical Center.
Chance is one of 50 Maryland mothers who are honoring the memory of their fallen sons and daughters by tending to the needs of those still fighting, the wounded and the veterans.
Together, they have revived the long-dormant state chapter of the American Gold Star Mothers, a service organization made up exclusively of women who have lost children in the military.
Founded after World War I and widely recognized during World War II, the American Gold Star Mothers had been dwindling for decades. Now the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have brought a new generation of women to the organization.
Maryland is one of several states seeing a revival. Nationally, the organization now counts 2,000 women as members.
"We know that grief turned inward is destructive," Chance says. "But when you allow yourself to serve and support others, it aids with the healing process."
The mothers ship care packages to troops overseas; they volunteer with the VA, the USO and other organizations; they speak at colleges, before veterans groups and at Memorial Day gatherings.
"It's just keeping our kids' spirit alive in helping others," says Carol Roddy, president of the Maryland chapter.
A 'special connection'
Susan Kern, who manages volunteers for the VA Maryland Health Care System, says the gold star mothers bring a "special connection" to their work.
"They do have that love for country, that love for soldiers, that love for veterans," she says. "Who better to give quality care to our veteran patients than people that really respect and love what they did?"
The mothers call it the club that no one wants to join. But they also say they have found comfort in continuing the service of their sons and daughters, in staying connected to active members of the military, and in working alongside others who understand their loss.
"There is no one like another mother who knows how you feel," says Norma Luther, the organization's national president. "Particularly another gold star mother. Because losing an adult child is one of the hardest things in life."
American Gold Star Mothers traces its roots to World War I, and aWashington, D.C., woman whose son died in that conflict.
Lt. George Vaughn Seibold, an American aviator who volunteered with the British Royal Flying Corps, was killed in action over France in 1918. In her grief, Grace Darling Seibold reached out to other women who had lost sons in the military.
Together, they formed a group to visit and help care for hospitalized veterans. They took their name from the gold star that families hung in windows when mourning a service member.