Our Sons, Our Heroes by Linda Jenkin Costanzo

Gold Star Mothers are the mothers whose sons (or daughters) didn’t come home from war. Their Vietnam War stories are documented in an oral history from Linda Jenkin Constanzo, Our Sons, Our Heroes: Memories Shared by America’s Gold Star Mothers from the Vietnam War (Sonrisa Press, 216 pp., $14.95, paper).

The organization began in 1928, for mothers who’d lost sons in World War I. It grew in numbers after the war, and was instrumental in attaining a small pension for surviving mothers. Gold Star Mothers offered support for the grieving, but also was devoted to services such as volunteer work in veterans hospitals.

According to Ann Biber, a former national president, the organization has dwindled since World War II, and is now quite small. But you do not have to belong to a formal organization to be a Gold Star Mother, and Constanzo has gathered the testimony of sixteen women, members and non-members alike, filling a small gap in the ongoing story of the legacy of the Vietnam War. In each account she first tells the story of the soldier or Marine who perished, then recounts how his mother carried on with life.

Every story is touching. Shirley Popoff, mother of Marine Corporal Curtis Crawford, relates how, shortly after her son’s death, she was harassed by an antiwar activist. She then became obsessed with grief, to the point that she turned into a crank at work, and was referred to counseling. Finally, she channeled her grief into constructive activities with the national organization, turning an ugly, bewildering experience into something positive.

The fullest entry may be Virginia Dabonka’s, which includes several letters from her son, PFC John Dabonka. He was an intelligent young man with some sweeping observations about the war, and an engaging writing style. His mother is similarly intelligent, and wise. But all of these accounts, as they try to make sense of senseless loss, also are about love.

Costanzo asked each contributor what she would say to her son if she could. Lance Corporal Stephen Boryszewski’s mother, Theresa, offers words that could speak for every Gold Star Mother:

“He was such a good boy. If I could tell him something, I would tell him, ‘Stephen, you are such a hero who sacrificed your life for the people of Vietnam, for your country, and for freedom. Stephen, I love you and wish you could be here. Love, Mom.’”

Mothers—or fathers, for that matter—are not supposed to outlive their children. For those facing lifelong grief over the loss of a son or daughter in war, Costanzo’s book offers a path out of despair.

—John Mort