WASHINGTON – For almost a century, the gold star has been a symbol — both of national pride and of a parent's worst nightmare. It means someone's son or daughter has died fighting for his country.
The gold star elicits respect, sympathy and compassion, and so two groups — American Gold Star Mothers and Gold Star Families for Peace — have adopted the image in their names. But one group declares a political position, which has created some confusion about exactly what "gold star" stands for.
The term dates back to World War I, when families displayed flags with a blue star in the center, indicating that they had a son in the military. If the young man died in combat, the blue star was covered with a gold one. The Department of Defense awards gold star pins to family members who have lost a son, daughter or relative in military service.
American Gold Star Mothers, a non-profit support group for families who have lost loved ones in war, hosts events on historical military dates to recognize soldiers' service. It has no religious or political affiliation.
Coverage of Sheehan's activities over the summer, including her vigil outside Bush's ranch in Crawford, Texas, has led some Americans to associate the gold star to the anti-war movement. And American Gold Star Mothers have been caught in the crossfire.
"It's the ill-informed that lash out. They get it off their chests," said Judith Young (search), national president of American Gold Star Mothers, referring to the phone calls the group has received at its office in Washington from Americans expressing their resentment about the war. "We have found the best way is not to answer back, because you're not going to change their mind one way or the other."
The group has been forced to filter persistent calls and e-mails intended for Gold Star Families for Peace, which is trying to build a national movement to get U.S. troops out of Iraq.
Bill Mitchell (search), a co-founder of Gold Star Families for Peace, lost his 25-year-old son, Army Sgt. Michael Mitchell, in April 2004. He said he tries to get his message out for peace and doesn't pay attention to the activities of the other gold star group.
"I don't personally see any confusion. I'm working towards peace," Mitchell, of Atascadero, Calif., told FOXNews.com.
Comparisons and Contrasts
Both groups' membership is comprised of family members whose sons, daughters or relatives have died at war. American Gold Star Mothers, established in 1928, has about 900 members. The group initially permitted only moms to join, but it has since allowed others.
Gold Star Families for Peace, which was founded last January, has 100 members.
Both groups post information on their sites for those interested in joining.
American Gold Star Mothers says on its Web site that "this is an organization of mothers whose sons or daughters served and died that this world might be a better place in which to live."
Gold Star Families for Peace says on its Web site that it "believes that our loved ones have died needlessly, senselessly, and avoidably in the aggression against Iraq." The group states that its purpose is to bring an end to the occupation in Iraq and offer a support group for others who have lost relatives in the war.
Sheehan, 48, was recently arrested in Washington protesting outside the White House. Since the death of her son Casey, who was killed in action in Iraq on April 4, 2004, Sheehan has used her gold star status to become a leader in the anti-war movement.
"We realized that we had a unique voice within military families," said Mitchell, whose son died in the same battle as Casey Sheehan. "We're out there telling our stories, getting our message out there that we've made the ultimate sacrifice, but we don't want any more blood being spilled in our sons' names."
Four national military family organizations released a statement in August demanding that anti-war groups stop using the gold star in their efforts to end the war.
American Gold Star Mothers Inc., Gold Star Wives of America Inc., Sons and Daughters In Touch, and American WWII Orphans Network don't want gold stars linked to political demonstrations in the anti-war movement by Gold Star Families for Peace.
"These four organizations — representing the mothers, wives and children of U.S. service personnel killed in WWII, Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan and other U.S. military conflicts — are nonpolitical and do not take a position on the merits of the political demonstration being carried about by the group calling themselves 'American Gold Star Families for Peace,'" reads a joint statement issued by the groups.
Rules Different for Voicing Positions on War
While Gold Star Families for Peace incorporates political events into some messages, as a non-profit group, American Gold Star Mothers is barred from having any political or religious affiliation.
Young said the American Gold Star Mothers Web site clearly lays out the group's mission, constitution and bylaws. It also explains that the group is a non-profit.
"[Sheehan] and her organization have no connection whatever with American Gold Star Mothers Inc. We are a 501c(3) organization and, as such, do not engage in political activities. We do support our troops. After all, they are our children," according to a statement on the site.
Young, who lost her son Jeffrey D. Young (search) in the Marine barracks bombing in Beirut, Lebanon, in 1983, has been a member of Gold Star Mothers for about 20 years. She said ignorance about the historical nature of her group breeds a lot of the confusion.
"Most Americans don't know what a gold star mother is," Young said.
But that, too, became an issue this year, when the Gold Star Mothers initially denied membership to a woman who was not an American citizen, but whose son had died fighting in Iraq. New York Gov. George Pataki and other lawmakers pressured the group to amend its membership rules to admit foreign nationals whose children had died in combat.
Ligaya Lagman (search), a Filipino who lives in Yonkers, N.Y., lost her 27-year-old son, Army Staff Sgt. Anthony Lagman, a U.S. citizen, in the Iraq war. She became the first foreign mom to join the group since the rule change in June.
Carmen Palmer (search), a Jamaican-born woman living in Mount Vernon, N.Y., also applied and joined the group after her son, a U.S. Marine, died.