We all are at least fairly familiar, if not well-versed, with what transpired in 1960s and ‘70s in Vietnam. Some of us have learned about the conflict from history books or television documentaries. Others may have gleaned information from watching Oliver Stone movies. Many of us have vague childhood memories of images and reports from the evening news, or knew neighborhood kids or relatives who enlisted or were drafted. And of course, many Americans experienced it firsthand.
We know about the American troops that went out as young adults and came back to an unwelcoming public after their service, many shunned by the anti-war movement. We know that many did not come back at all – over 58,000.
But what we don’t know about is the perspective of the mothers of those young men who never made it back. Their story had never been told.
Enter Linda Jenkin Constanzo. In March 2000, the mother of two elementary school aged boys had a chance encounter with another mother at a Buffalo, New York theater. The two struck up a casual conversation and during the exchange, she mentioned to Costanzo that she had lost a son in Vietnam. He was 19.
Costanzo looked at her own sons, then about nine.
“A bell rang in my head,” said Costanzo. “These ladies have been through something that has never been exposed to the public. I said to myself, ‘My kids are half the age at the time these kids got drafted. Imagine if your life was half over at the age of nine.’”
A couple of other serendipitous events over the following few months put the wheels in motion for Costanzo to begin a journey to tell these women’s stories. The product is her book, Our Sons, Our Heroes: Memories Shared by America’s Gold Star Mothers from the Vietnam War (Sonrisa Press, 2013).
Costanzo was in town recently and made an appearance at Woody’s West End Tavern in Miami Springs, to promote her book. It was fittingly Memorial Day weekend, and she was met with a small but interested cadre of customers who ranged from veterans to civilians alike. All were attentive to what she had to say.
Our Sons, Our Heroes is a collection of personal narratives by 16 Gold Star Mothers, based on interviews conducted and edited by Costanzo. American Gold Star Mothers is an organization of women who have lost a child in the service of the United States Armed Forces. Established shortly after World War I to provide support for mothers who lost a son or daughter in that war, it continues on today. It is a club to which no mother aspires to belong.
One of Costanzo’s subjects is Shirley Popoff of Dunkirk, New York. The mother of two sons, she lost her younger boy, Corporal Curtis Eugene Crawford, USMC, when he tried to help a fellow Marine and was caught in enemy fire. He died on February 28, 1967 at the age of 19.
Popoff recounts how during her grieving, she would receive phone calls at home from protestors venting anti-war sentiments. This is but one of the experiences and lack of support family members faced after Vietnam.
Another entry hits a little closer to home.
Miami Springs resident Private First Class Bruce Wayne Carter was 17 and just out of high school when he was recruited by the Marines in 1968. He was killed in action on August 7, 1969, age 19.
Georgie Carter Krell, Carter’s mother, now resides in Virginia Gardens. It was two years before she found out how Carter was killed: he threw himself on a grenade to save his comrades. Carter was subsequently awarded the Medal of Honor, the highest award given to an American war hero.
Krell went on to become the national president of the American Gold Star Mothers in Washington, D.C., and, in a vow to her son’s memory, laid the wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington Cemetery. Krell’s entire journey of grief and finding her purpose is documented in the final chapter of Our Sons, Our Heroes.
Krell was present at Costanzo’s book signing at Woody’s. A strong and feisty woman even now, she is keen to share her experiences and talk about her son. She is an ardent advocate for him, Gold Star Mothers, and all veterans.
In Virginia Gardens, Northwest 66th Avenue is named after her son (take a good look at the street sign the next time you enter or exit the neighborhood that way), during Paul Bithorn’s tenure as mayor of the Village. It is the only street in Miami-Dade County named for a Marine.
The Miami VA Hospital is also named after her son, rededicated as the Bruce W. Carter Department of Veterans Affairs in 2008 by an act of Congress. The Marine Corps League Detachment #052 in Miami and the Vietnam Veterans of America Chapter 121 in Coral Gables also bear his name.
In her epilogue, Costanzo writes, “Veterans say that war is hell but it’s not just hell for those who die in it. The far-reaching impact goes beyond the battlefield.” Her collection of essays examines this impact, with implications toward conflicts since Vietnam.
“War not only affects a family,” stated Costanzo in an interview. “It affects an entire society and we are still seeing it four decades later. We will see it forty years from now with the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. The results of these present wars are just beginning. Everyone needs to be much more on top of what our congressmen and president are approving when they make decisions to send Americans out there to fight in other countries.”
Our Sons, Our Heroes: Memories Shared by America’s Gold Star Mothers from the Vietnam War can be purchased online at barnesandnoble.com and amazon.com for $10.99.