The room was awash in cheery shades of yellow as members of the Gold Star Wives gathered last Saturday for their annual three-day regional conference.
As the women, most wearing marigold jackets or buttercup sweaters, geared up to address pertinent military concerns from benefits to fund-raising, one challenge was evident simply by walking into the room.
The North Central and Midwest Region of Gold Star Wives of America Inc., this year meeting in Bloomington, encompasses six states, including Minnesota. But only 13 women were present.
Shrinking ranks worry leaders, many in their 60s, 70s, even 80s. While normal attrition is part of the reason -- the most robust participation was among World War II widows -- they know they must reach out quickly to younger women, most of whom are unaware of the unique support they offer, or who are reluctant to join an organization that, really, nobody would choose willingly.
"When was yours killed?" one woman asks another during a morning break.
Gold Star Wives are widows (and some widowers) whose spouses died while serving in the U.S. Armed Forces, or as a result of that service. Their philosophy is that "only a service spouse understands the sorrow and problems of another service spouse."
Aside from offering emotional support, the nonprofit organization founded in 1945 makes donations, volunteers at veterans hospitals and advocates on Capitol Hill. One pressing concern currently is fairness around military pensions.
Operation Desert Storm, and thousands of deaths in Afghanistan and Iraq have opened up the list of potential members. But newly stringent privacy laws are making it harder to gain access to their names.
Minnesota, one of the nation's oldest chapters, was formed in 1946 with 150 members. Just five years ago, the number was about 125. Today, it's about 60.
"We really need to get the word out," said member Marianna Nelson, 67, of Minneapolis. She was 25 when her husband, Staff Sgt. Paul Nelson, was killed in Vietnam. She pulls up the leg of her purple velour jogging pants. A tattoo of his likeness, surrounded by his many medals, covers the entirety of her calf.
"I just realized that this is the group to share this with," she said with a smile.
Martha Didamo was 49 when her husband died in Vietnam at 53. "We had 30 years with the Air Force," said Didamo, a past national president from Bellevue, Neb. "I knew people. But when your spouse has only been with the Guard for a few years, there's no cohesiveness. That's why it's important to consider joining."
Pamela Mettille, 46, joined for that reason. Her husband, Michael, a full-time member of the Minnesota National Guard, died five years ago in Iraq at age 44. The West St. Paul mother of two teenagers, Mettille came to Gold Star Wives soon after, "wanting that connection. I don't feel that you get it unless you live it."
Veronica Mora, 28, agrees. Her husband died in Iraq in 2005, leaving three young children, including an 8-day-old son. "The worst feeling is that you're in this alone," said Mora, a national officer who paid her own way here from Perrysburg, Ohio.
The two younger women appreciate the group's challenges. Mora laughs recounting how she hoped to go out Friday night after the opening dinner, but by 8 p.m., there was nobody awake.
Mettille said outreach to other younger widows is tough since "women are spread out across Minnesota." And the local chapter has been slower to adapt to social media sites, such as Facebook or Yahoo groups, than the national organization, she said.
But she knows they're trying. Dues are kept to a modest $25 annually to encourage membership. "If change happens, it will happen through this group," said Mettille, who is considering a board position.
During the morning session, Region President Crystal Wenum led a discussion of a concept new to many: Webinars, which would allow both elderly members and young widows with children to participate in conferences from home.
"Wow," Didamo said, "this sounds great!"
Mora, the youngest, offers up another 21st-century idea. To help increase membership, she jotted down the names of servicemen whose memories were being honored in her local newspaper around Memorial Day last year. Then she went to Facebook and posted a message to women she believed were their survivors.
"I introduced myself and said I was a fellow war widow and I'm not a crazy person!" She got two hits, including one from a woman who lost her 26-year-old husband on their wedding anniversary in 2007.
"She had never heard of Gold Star Wives," Mora said.
The two keep in touch and Mora recently attended her new friend's baby shower. She hopes they'll one day attend a meeting together of Gold Star Wives.
"No one else," Mora said, "is going to speak on our behalf."
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