Mothers of deployed soldiers find support in numbers

Blue Star Mothers
Members of the Rochester Chapter of the Blue Star Mothers. From left to right: Victoria O'Brien, of Kasson; Judy Reitmeyer-Hunt, of Kasson; Nancy Salvo, of Oronoco; Sandy Goodman, of Kasson; Barb Hauber, of Kasson; Pauline Berg, of Rochester; Lisa Meddock, of Rochester; Dale McIntyre, of Dodge Center; Heidi Hilgers-Heymann, of Zumbro Falls; and Nanette Christenson, of Rochester.
MPR Photo/Elizabeth Baier

Barb Kriesel's son Ryan decided to join the Army when he was 19. Six weeks after enlisting, straight out of boot camp in Fort Carson, Colo., he was deployed to Iraq, where he drove a tank for one year.

That's when the sleepless nights and constant worrying began for his mom.

"I was pretty much a basket case and searching thing online and I stumbled on Blue Star Mothers on the Internet," she said.

Anyone with a loved one serving in the military knows the anxiety that a late night phone call or knock on the door can cause. Military moms have long come together to talk about these concerns, especially in times of war. One of the groups that helps them cope is the Blue Star Mothers, which has been around since World War II.

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There are about 240 Blue Star Mothers in a dozen chapters around Minnesota. Moms like Kriesel say they share a mixture of fear and pride for their children.

As moms, they admit they'd do anything to have their sons and daughters stay in the United States, working safe jobs that keep them out of harms way. As citizens, they speak with pride of their children's service in the military.

For Kriesel, no one quite understands that emotional conflict like the women in her group.

"It's so huge," she said. "I can talk about my son's deployment to people at work, to people at church, to family, and they don't get it. Okay, so he's going to Iraq, like he's going on some vacation. But these moms get it. They know exactly what it means. They know exactly what I'm feeling. They know the questions to ask...We're not unlike AA, we're just a support group for each other."

Barb Kriesel
Barb Kriesel, of Rochester, is a member of the Rochester chapter of the Blue Star Mothers organization.
MPR Photo/Elizabeth Baier

The Blue Star Mothers of Rochester arrive one by one at their monthly meeting on a recent weeknight. They start with the Pledge of Allegiance.

Then, they rearrange tables, put a small American flag in a vase, and place folded index cards in front of them. Each card has their name and their child's name written on it.

After the pledge, they give updates on their children. This is the highlight of the meeting.

Heidi Hilgers-Heymann of Zumbro Falls, spoke of her son, Andrew, who is at the Army's Joint Readiness Center in Louisiana, preparing for a deployment in April. She tells the group he's already said he doesn't plan on calling home the entire time he's away.

"He wants to keep his mind in what he's doing," Hilgers-Heymann said. Others in the group say "that'll change," and laugh.

"He'll talk to you, cause it'll be 'Mom, can you send this and this and this and, ship this; I need granola bars and wiffle balls,' " one mother said.

Another chimed in, "or 'their pillows sucks. Send me some pillows.' "

"Well that's good," Hilgers-Heymann said. "I'd like to be the one to say to him, 'told ya.' "

Sharing these stories is vital for these moms. They speak of the deployment as if it were their own. They laugh. They ask each other questions. They listen. Sometimes, they cry.

"If you shed a tear or two here, you don't get chastised or made fun of," said Laura Hughes, whose son, 23, is a sergeant in the Army. He suffered a shrapnel injury on both his legs four years ago, on his first deployment in Iraq.

The 54-year mom from Kasson tries to maintain a strong front and positive attitude. But she says it's hard, especially since her son has been re-deployed four times since the accident.

"The women can give you coping ideas, and kind of some different skills to use as a woman and some of the hormonal issues we face, where we might cry a little more easily than the men," she said.

The national Blue Star Mothers group started during World War II. Mothers volunteered, worked in hospitals, packed care packages and helped veterans coming home. But the group became largely inactive during the Vietnam War, when there was less public support for the military.

"We all vowed that we are not going to have this be another Vietnam and our children will be honored," said Pattie Kelley, president of the state organization.

The biggest challenge for these moms, Kelley says, is maintaining a positive attitude while supporting their children through a deployment.

In the last five years, the Rochester chapter has had one Blue Star mom lose a soldier. That's when the mom becomes a gold star mom, and the group honors her sacrifice.