LYNDHURST, N.J. — Diane Fenton of Little Ferry, N.J., says she was one of the more fortunate among the mothers who have seen their soldier sons and daughters march off to war and return in a coffin.
She was able to hold her son’s hand and hug him before he died.
Marine Sgt. Matthew Fenton, a husky 24-year-old horribly wounded in Iraq, lay on life support at a Naval hospital in Bethesda, Md., in 2006 surrounded by loved ones. There would be no miracle recovery. And so, after a weeklong vigil, they cried as Diane Fenton gave doctors permission to take him off life support.
“I would like to think that Matthew knew we were all there,” Fenton said.
But other than having had that chance to say goodbye, Fenton shares all the other aspects of heartache faced by mothers like herself. So it’s been a great comfort to join the Gold Star Mothers, made up of women who have lost sons or daughters in Iraq and Afghanistan. “It’s been very helpful,” Fenton said.
The American Gold Star Mothers was founded in 1928 as a support group by a woman who lost her son in World War I.
In New Jersey alone, there are 100 members in Gold Star Mothers chapters, 90 percent of them mothers of soldiers killed in Iraq or Afghanistan.
What makes it different from other military-memorial organizations is that there are no rigid meeting schedules, no formal counseling sessions. Mothers, most in their 40s to early 50s, get together informally, whenever one feels the need to reach out, especially on the anniversary of a child’s death.
And true to the Gold Star credo, it is not a weepy group — they just agree there will be sudden moments when they simply need one another’s support.
“When one is having a bad day, we’ll call each other,” said Shirley Parrello of West Milford, N.J., whose son, Marine Lance Cpl. Brian Parrello, 19, was killed in Al Anbar province in Iraq on Jan. 1, 2005. “You are able to share things with them you can’t really share with anybody else, because they understand. I feel comfortable being with military people because they get it.”
Pam Schwarz of Carlstadt, N.J., attended private and Veterans Administration counseling sessions after her son, Marine Lance Cpl. Michael Schwarz, 20, was killed by a sniper in Iraq in November 2006.
“They didn’t help,” Schwarz said. Joining the Gold Star mothers did, she said.
While Michael was deployed, Schwarz said she was afraid to answer the phone or the door.
“This is not a general grief; it’s a deeper grief,” Schwarz said of her son’s death. “Mothers who haven’t been through it, they don’t have a clue what military families go through unless they have veterans in the family.”
“We are all in the same boat,” said Judith Tapper, 73, of Atco, N.J., the president of the state chapter. “We all share the same heartache.” Tapper’s son, David, was a 32-year-old Navy SEAL killed in Afghanistan in 2003. She said she considers the mothers of the 6,587 soldiers killed in action since 9/11 all Gold Star mothers, whether they are formally members or not.
Surprisingly, until they join, usually years after the death of a child, many women are not familiar with the organization.
“I didn’t really know what it was about,” Fenton said. “I was grateful to have Pam (Schwarz). I guess I felt I had Pam; I didn’t need it.”
At the time they met, Schwarz was president of the Gold Star Mothers’ Paterson, N.J., chapter. “You should join,” Schwarz told her.
Fenton, Parrello and Schwarz were at ease recently in a cozy Italian restaurant, Casa Giuseppe on Valley Brook Avenue in Lyndhurst, N.J., where they and other Gold Star Mothers, shared pasta fagioli and stuffed pork chops with burly, tattooed bikers from the Nam Knights of America Motorcycle Club.
The scene might have mystified curious passers-by, but to the mothers and the men it was a family gathering in the spirit of hope and faith, a meeting of two generations; one whose soldiers were scorned, the other representing less than 1 percent of the soldiers doing the fighting in the war on terror.
Fred “Fritz’ Reiman of Norwood, N.J., the president of the Nam Knights, the gruffest-looking of the bunch, choked back tears as he welcomed the mothers.
“You’ll always be in our hearts; we are so lucky to have you with us,” Reiman said, hoisting a glass in a toast before helping to hand out white roses tinged with gold, the Gold Star Mothers colors.
Jeff Annicelli, 65, of Wall Township, N.J., the Nam Knights treasurer, recalled employing some subterfuge when he was deployed to Vietnam. To keep his mother from worrying, he didn’t tell her anything until he was in the country.
“The first letter I sent, I never told her I was in the infantry; I told her I was in a base camp,” said Annicelli, who was wounded twice serving with the 25th Infantry Division. “All she understood was that I was camping out with a bunch of guys. Unless you have a mother who has gone through it, you can never experience what a mother goes through, whether it is Vietnam or Afghanistan.”
Three Marines appeared at the Schwarz house one night to deliver the news of Michael’s death. Pam Schwarz remembers sitting on bedroom steps in a den while the Marines talked to her husband, Ken.
Schwarz’s first phone call was to her pastor, the Rev. Donald Pitches of the First Presbyterian Church in Carlstadt. Pitches had baptized Michael, confirmed him, and would preside over his funeral.
“The heartache, the grief is unimaginable,” said Pitches, the Nam Knights chaplain.
Of the Gold Star Mothers, he said, “They really talk about what their kids meant to them and the world. Most are honored to talk about their children.”
Parrello said she and her husband, Nino, weren’t happy when their son joined the Marines in 2003. But, she said, the Marine recruiter did a good selling job — “He told us by the time Brian got through boot camp and advanced training, it (the war in Iraq) would be over,” she said. “Brian was passionate, determined, so we supported him.”
Then, one day, Matthew Parrello, Brian’s older brother, called her on a cellphone while she was out of the house.
“Mom, you have to come home,” Matthew implored. “It’s Brian. You just have to come home.”
“He really didn’t want to tell me over the phone,” Shirley Parrello said. “Just tell me he’s alive,” she told Matthew as she frantically drove home. “You just have to come home,” Matthew told her.
“The memory of two Marines standing at my front door is etched in my mind forever,” Shirley Parrello said.
In the days following the news, she tried to find out the details of Brian’s death.
“The Marines were forthcoming with information, but sometimes it wasn’t always accurate,” she said. Through networking, she said she learned that Brian, a coxswain on a swift boat that patrolled the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, had died from blunt force trauma from an improvised explosive device.
“You know what helps? I keep in touch with guys in Brian’s platoon,” she said. “It’s been very therapeutic.”
Several years later, on the anniversary of Brian’s death, Parrello received an emotional phone call from Kevin Powell, a Marine in Brian’s platoon. They cried; they laughed.
“I know you lost a son that day, but I want you to know you gained 40 others,” Powell told her.
On Saturday, Parrello attended the wedding of one of Brian’s older twin brothers, Anthony Parrello. As she walked down the aisle, she held a picture of Brian in her hand.
“I needed,” she said, “to feel he was there with me.”