Georgia Hudak's two children were still in diapers when her husband, U.S. Navy pilot Nicholas Harris, died in an accident while on duty.
She still tears up talking about his death on March 10, 1968, and the years she and her children struggled to come to terms with it.
Hudak, of Glendale, Ariz., was one of more than 70 widows gathered Friday morning at Fort Snelling Memorial Chapel for the 73rd Annual Gold Star Wives of America National Convention held in the Twin Cities this week.
"I stuffed it all down. No one in the family ever talked about him, not even his mother," said Hudak, during the annual rose ceremony to honor their fallen husbands. "I am grateful to the Gold Star Wives. I am glad I can say his name here. He is still with me."
The national nonprofit service organization for military widows and widowers was formed at the end World War II to provide emotional support and lobbying clout for the spouses of service members who died while serving or from a military-related cause of death.
At the time, widows and their children received paltry benefits or sometimes nothing at all upon their husbands' death. What started as four young widows meeting in New York City in April 1945 has grown to 6,300 members across the country. Most members are women but there are a handful of men who have lost military spouses, too, said Gold Star Wives of America President Crystal Wenum, who lives in Hudson, Wis.
Wenum said the group remains as relevant as ever as Congress controls survivor benefits for the families of fallen servicemen.
"People forget about us ladies, so we have to raise our voices," said Wenum, whose husband served in Vietnam. His death in 1982 was determined to be service related.
One of the group's most famous members was newly widowed First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, who joined the group the year it was formed and helped it gain recognition. Gold Star Wives of America holds a congressional charter.
At the memorial service Friday, the women, nearly all dressed in yellow, sang "God Bless America" and "Amazing Grace," accompanied by a bagpipe. Each woman stepped forward, laid a red rose on the steps at the front of the chapel and spoke of their fallen husbands. The women talked about their husbands' service in World War II, Korea, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan. Several women described being pregnant at the time of their husband's death and raising children who knew their fathers only through stories and photos.
Others described caring for their husbands who returned home from conflicts wounded and disabled and later succumbed to their injuries. They spoke of deaths related to the Agent Orange, an herbicide used by the U.S. military in Vietnam that has caused major health problems for those exposed to it.
Jeanette Early's husband died in 1969 while on duty in Vietnam. She was a young mother left to raise the couple's three boys, all under the age of 6. She credits her parents and, later, the Gold Star Wives with helping her.
"It's such a support group. I knew the women were on the same journey I was on — losing a spouse," said Early, of Aurora, Colo. "I felt, this is someone who understands."
Many women spoke lovingly of their husband's legacies — their children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
"But it doesn't get any easier," Hudak said. "We learn to live with it, but it's still there. It's there every day."