"We're sisters, that's all there is to it," said Sandra Robertson, a 40-year member of Gold Star Wives.

Robertson voiced a common sentiment among members of the Gold Star Wives, a nonprofit organization that provides support for widows and widowers of service members who died while on active duty or from service-related disabilities.

For Robertson and her "sisters," Gold Star Wives is much more than just a club - it's a family. And when more than 70 Gold Star Wives and guests gathered at the Holiday Inn North in Columbus April 17-19 for the 61st annual Gold Star Wives Southeast Region Conference, many of the women said the weekend was like a family reunion.

"There's a camaraderie that doesn't exist in most any other club," said Wanda Funderburk, a member of the Chattahoochee Valley chapter, which hosted the event.

In addition to providing numerous socializing opportunities, the conference included administrative meetings, guest speakers --- and an appearance by the Patriot Guard Riders, an organization of motorcycle riders who honor fallen service members.

"At Fort Benning, the Gold Star Wives are our heroes, too," said COL Frederick Wolf, Fort Benning deputy garrison commander for transformation, who spoke to the Gold Star Wives about construction and changes to Fort Benning facilities. "They're part of our Fort Benning family, and they're a great resource for military families who have also (lost a loved one)."

That shared loss is what makes the Gold Star Wives such a tightly knit organization, Robertson said.

"When you lose someone, all of a sudden, you don't fit in anywhere," she said.

"Only another Gold Star Wife is going to understand what you're going through."
Robertson, like many members of Gold Star Wives, was inspired to join the organization after meeting other members.

"I felt like --- this club is where I fit in and where I could do something with my time," she said.

One of Gold Star Wives' goals is to contribute to the community through volunteer and service projects. In Columbus, one of its most visible projects is sponsoring rows of flags along Victory Drive each year on Veterans Day.

Leta McNair, president of the Chattahoochee Valley chapter, has been involved in the flag project since she joined Gold Star Wives in 1969.

"My little boy, who's now 40 years old, remembers walking behind me on the median putting in the flags," she said.

The club is also active in public life at the national level, lobbying Congress to improve benefits and programs for service widows and widowers.

Rachel Clinksale, government relations chair for the Birmingham, Ala., chapter, is working with other Gold Star Wives to pass a bill to increase the amount of benefits widows and widowers receive each year. Clinksale's work has a direct impact on fellow Gold Star Wives like Funderburk, who said she relies on the monthly check she receives from Veterans Affairs.

"For so many of us, that check is a lifesaver," she said.

Because Gold Star Wives is a nonprofit organization, it depends mainly on donations to fund its projects, especially its legislative work.

"We may not have a lot of money, but we do have spunk," McNair said.

Although Gold Star Wives has been active in the tricommunity since the late 1960s, many people are unfamiliar with the organization and its projects, which may be partly because people do not understand the meaning behind Gold Star Wives' name, McNair said.

During WWII, families hung blue stars in their windows to represent loved ones serving in the military. When a family member was killed, the blue star was replaced with a gold one. When Gold Star Wives was founded in 1945, the star imagery was still fresh in Americans' minds.

Though Gold Star Wives has not yet been embraced by many widows of the Global War on Terrorism, McNair encourages them to join.

"It's important for our young widows that we carry on the tradition of Gold Star Wives," she said. "We know how to soldier on. Whatever gets in the way, we will find a solution."

Page last updated Tue April 28th, 2009 at 15:19