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Unfurling the past to honor them

The memory of a blue star on a field of white sets a mother on a mission of unity in a time of conflict.

By TOM ZUCCO, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 22, 2003

TAMPA -- She couldn't do it. She just couldn't sit at home and worry. She had to do something productive. And hopeful. But what?

Georgene Bender's 20-year-old son, Greg, was deployed somewhere in the Middle East. He left just after Christmas. She gets an occasional e-mail from him, and last she heard, he was okay. But she has no idea where he is.

Somehow, some way, she wanted to let anyone who cared know that Greg was out there somewhere. And that she was proud of her son.

Then she remembered that white banner with the blue star her grandmother had kept in the ceder chest in her attic. And she remembered Vietnam.

In that other war, in that other time, American soldiers trickled home in silence. And usually out of uniform. If they saw banners at all, they were more likely to read "War Criminal" than "Welcome Home." Bender was a teenager in the late 1960s.

"Guys came home and were treated like dirt," she said Thursday, sitting in the middle of a home economics class at Mary Help of Christians School, where she is a teacher. "It was like a forgotten war. Nobody wanted to acknowledge it was going on."

She would make sure it wouldn't be that way for Greg.

"I just want to feel connected," she said, "because in that war, we were so disconnected."

But what could a 51-year-old mother of two, a middle school science teacher who loves crafts and Barbra Streisand records, do?

"I remembered the Blue Star banner my grandmother had," she said, "and I went on the Internet. I thought it was just for World War II. And then I read where the American Legion is trying to revive the banner."

The Blue Star banner is a small flag with red trim and one, or several, blue stars in the middle. It symbolizes a father, brother, mother, sister or another close relative who is serving on active duty during a war. Like woolen baseball uniforms and Victrolas, it hasn't been widely used since World War II.

Rather than buy a banner online, Bender made one late last December, just after Greg was called up. When she returned to school after the Christmas break, she remarked to several co-workers that making more of the banners would be a great project for the kids in home economics.

"I knew the father of one of the boys in class was overseas," she said, "and I started to find out how many others in the school had relatives on active duty. Maybe we could make flags for them, too."

And so began Bender's banners.

Mary Help of Christians School, a 75-year-old former orphanage tucked between orange groves and pastureland off Interstate 4, has an enrollment of about 107 students in grades 6-8. Bender found that 10 students and two faculty members at the parochial school had relatives on active duty.

She would make flags for them, too.

But she would have help. Several times over the past few weeks, in Bernadeth D'Souza's home economics class, the students pull out their needles and thread and go to work on their banners.

"I tell the students, 'Every time you put in a stitch, remember the soldiers,"' D'Souza said. "We're going to start more next week."

The kids enjoy their work. They say it helps them feel connected, too.

"But sometimes I get sad," Sarah Pickens, a sixth-grader whose brother-in-law is serving in the Marines, said as she stared down at her shoes. "I don't want anything bad to happen to him.

"We're having a special church service where the banners will be blessed," she added. "I'm kind of worried, because I don't want to cry."

A simple white banner with red trim and a blue star.

"It's my son in the window," Bender said. "When I leave home every day and come back every night, I look to make sure it's still there.

"Someone asked me what Greg would say. He knows about it. I sent him an e-mail. He was happy with it, but I can just hear him saying, 'Oh, mom. How embarrassing."'

Greg, Bender's oldest son, was born on Memorial Day 1982. He signed up for the Army National Guard in the days following Sept. 11 without telling her or her husband. She doesn't mind so much; she just wished he would have said something first.

He was called up the day after Christmas 2002. In 24 hours, he had to pack, get to the bank and rush to Gainesville to make arrangements to leave school at the University of Florida. He wanted to make a will, but there wasn't time.

Now, Bender said, he's somewhere "in the sandbox."

For her, the banner is "a connection, you know? And women need to connect. That's why Blue Star Mothers of America was started during World War II."

"I just went to Wal-Mart," she added with a smile. "They had white material on sale, and I bought it all."

History, uses of the banner

-- The official name of the banner is the Service flag. An indoor flag, it was first displayed in the front windows of homes during World War I to signify a son or husband serving in the armed forces. The flag became known as the "son in service flag" or the "service star banner." During World War II, the banner saw widespread use and the Department of War issued specifications for its manufacture.

-- Today, the flag may be displayed by members of the immediate family of anyone serving in the armed forces of the United States during any period of war or hostilities. Service flags may also be displayed by an organization, such as a church, whose members are on active duty during a war.

-- If a family member serving in the Armed Forces is killed or dies, the blue star is covered or replaced with a gold star. The blue star represents hope and pride; the gold star symbolizes sacrifice to the cause of liberty and freedom.

-- Because of public contempt for the Vietnam War, Service flags almost disappeared during the late 1960s and early '70s.

-- Most flags made during World Wars I and II were made by the families of those serving in the military -- usually mothers and wives. While many flags are now machine-made and can be purchased in stores or though the Internet, flags can still be handmade. The Department of Defense requires only that persons who manufacture and sell the Service flag obtain a certificate of authorization.

-- The dimensions of a typical banner are 9 inches wide and 14 inches long with a 2-inch border. An example of the flag is seen hanging in the window of Mrs. Ryan's house in the movie Saving Private Ryan. Among the most famous Blue Star banners were those of the five Sullivan brothers of Waterloo, Iowa, who all perished aboard the USS Juneau during World War II.

-- Sources: Blue Star Mothers of America ( and

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