Gold Star Children of Vietnam Break the Silence
By Mitty Griffis Mirrer
It was first light on a special birthday. Finally double-digits. I leapt out of bed and made a beeline for my mom’s bedroom to announce the milestone.
“I’m 10, I’m 10. … Wake up!” My stepfather didn’t move and my mom looked at me, sighed and said, “It’s been 10 years.”
My birthday always coincided with the anniversary of the death of a man I never knew, a man no one would talk about. A decade earlier—I was just hours old in the maternity ward—my mother held me as a chaplain and another Marine Corps officer walked down the long hallway to her hospital bed. Sally B. Griffis was officially notified her husband, and my father, was dead. She moved her hand and tried to shove them away. The young officer cupped her hand, held it over his heart and continued with the announcement that shattered her world.
Marine Capt. William A. Griffis, III, was killed on his second tour of duty when a bomb exploded in his helicopter January 24, 1970, while on a mission as an advisor in Vietnam.
At that moment, I may have become the youngest Gold Star child in the country. That day, my big sister, Sarah, was nearly 4. We were part of a growing number—ultimately 20,000 American children—who lost a parent during the Vietnam War, an unpopular conflict no one in our family dared talked about.
At the time, I grew up thinking we were the only ones whose father was killed half a world away. The saddest thing of all is my sister and I had no idea we had the right to grieve for our father. Somehow we understood that kind of emotion was not welcome. Grief went underground.
There were no support groups for families and certainly no Internet to connect my mother with others across the country who suffered a similar fate. In those days, military widows had 30 days to move off base and there weren’t any books that offered guidance on how to be a military widow. There was nothing but silence.
The mother my sister knew was gone. It would take years for her to summon the courage to talk about our father and share his life story with us.
That silence is a common thread for Gold Star children from the Vietnam era. Many mothers say they were protecting their children by not talking about the war and families didn’t have the emotional resources to deal with the grief and sorrow. Vietnam felt like a big secret families of the fallen kept, but I wanted to know much more.
Years later, as a broadcast journalist, I had my first opportunity. In 1992, I was asked to do a news story at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington. I thought I could get away with working and keeping any feelings in check. But when I saw my reflection in that black granite, with thousands of names—including my dad’s—etched in the wall, grief surfaced. Nothing prepared me for that kind of emotion. Several takes and an empathetic group of Vietnam veterans helped me through my assignment that day.
Five years later, when I was working in New Orleans, my mom began researching widows of war. She was surprised to find very little information on the subject, so an idea was born. With a grant and funding from my news station, we traveled to Vietnam to interview war widows for a documentary. That’s when my sister and I began to fill in the outline of the father we barely knew.
For the first time, I began to feel like my father’s daughter. I knew a little more about who he was and where he served, and walked hand-in-hand with my sister and mother across the field where he died. Finally, together, we recognized not only our loss, but also his life. I was 27 years old.
After September 11, a new generation of children would need help discovering their fathers and mothers lost to war in Iraq and Afghanistan. I began to wonder about the children these conflicts would leave behind. I was one of several Vietnam-era Gold Star children who wanted to make sure this generation would have the support we never had.
The more Gold Star children I met, the more I knew I needed to document our journey and share our stories to help the children of the fallen, and the country they served, heal. I began planning the production of my documentary, “Gold Star Children.”
Bonnie Carroll, a military widow, founded Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS) in 1994, following the death of her husband, Army Brigadier General Tom Carroll, who was killed in a C-12 plane crash in Alaska. Formed out of tragedy, military survivors now have a place to talk about their shared loss. Carroll’s growing nonprofit organization has helped create a community for these families. For the children, TAPS—in partnership with the USO—offers a Good Grief Camp where each child is matched one-on-one with a trained mentor.
I spent a Memorial Day weekend at TAPS mentoring a 7-year-old girl whose father was killed in Iraq. We sat in a sharing circle together and the children gleaned courage from one another as each expressed their thoughts and feelings. The experience of witnessing the children share their stories at such a young age inspired me. I now had a mission to create a documentary film that would help give our Gold Star children a voice.
For every child at the grief camps, there were hundreds of children who could not be there and whose stories would remain untold. My hope was that the film would reach those children and other Americans who need and want to know more.
Jennifer Branch Denard was one of the Vietnam-era Gold Star children I met through my TAPS experience. She was nearly 2 years old when her father was killed in Vietnam. Denard and I went back to several military survivor conferences and she continued to mentor while I began to interview Gold Star children and their families.
Denard, a teacher, is supportive, strong and outspoken. She was paired with Cierra Becker, 9, whose father, Army Staff Sergeant Shane Becker, was killed in Iraq in 2007. Their relationship would become the voice of Gold Star Children.
My film follows the parallel journeys of the generation of children who lost parents in recent wars and the generation of adult children who lost parents in Vietnam. Some of those Vietnam-era children are now mentoring the newest Gold Star children.
“There was a whole generation of people just like me, who were searching around the attic for their dad in drawers,” said Denard. “A whole generation of kids just like me, who didn’t want to bother Mom with our grief. I think it has to do with the fact that the country wasn’t ready to talk about Vietnam.”
“When you go through something difficult, you want to help other people so they don’t have to do that the same way,” she said. “You don’t want someone else to suffer what you’ve been through. I want these little kids to just feel like their grief is important, because it is.”
“Sometimes you feel like nobody else can feel the same pain you’re going through,” Becker, now 14, explained. “Other kids may not feel this way, but I sort of felt like the world was pressing down on me to make a decision sometimes, to make a decision to completely change my personality or just gloss over what happened. Or, whether I just act like Daddy’s there every day.”
Her mom, Crystal Becker, recounted the day her oldest daughter became a Gold Star child.
“When they came to our door, Cierra looked out the window and before I even opened the door, she was running through the house saying, ‘No, no, no, no. Not Daddy. Not Daddy. Not my daddy.’ Because she knew what two soldiers dressed in their dress greens at your door meant.”
“When a man dies for his country, everybody says he paid the last full measure,” Denard said. “But that’s just not quite true, is it? It’s his children that keep on paying.”
Retired Gen. George W. Casey, Jr, a former Army chief of staff, is a Gold Star child, too. His father, Army Maj. Gen. George W. Casey, Sr., died in a helicopter crash in South Vietnam in 1970. “I never really knew my father as a man—we never got there,” Casey says in the film. “That’s one of the biggest regrets of my life.”
Upon becoming chief of staff of the Army, he realized not much had changed for survivors since his own father’s death nearly 40 years before. He established Survivor Outreach Services—now 175 offices strong—to offer long-term services and support to the families of the fallen, ensuring they are no longer alone.
Through organizations like TAPS and the nonprofit Snowball Express, which brings children of the fallen together every December, we watched Becker, wise beyond her years, find her voice and begin to help other children who are newly bereaved.
“The one thing I would tell a new child who just lost their loved one is … you’re going to feel better and the hurt isn’t always going to be dangling over your head like it is right now,” she said.
Gold Star Children opens a door on history spanning two generations and gives voice to our nation’s silent heroes.
Community acknowledgment of the sacrifices their parents made for this country is paramount. Whether we agree with wars or not, these Gold Star children are every American’s responsibility.
– Mitty Griffis Mirrer is the producer and director of “Gold Star Children,” which can be downloaded, rented or purchased at goldstarchildren.org.
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