Gulf War Vets Home Page

Families of Gulf War veterans pass the torch


MITCHELL — Six ladies clustered in to Phyllis Foster’s living room Wednesday afternoon. Some had never met, yet they chatted comfortably about the same experience that brought each of them together, binding each to one another with a heartstring few would understand.

Each of the women sent a loved one off to war.

One shipped a husband to the Vietnam War, while others shipped sons and daughters to the Gulf War. And the youngest of the group, Nancy Peabody, has a son now serving in Iraq.

They are bound by war.

Yet the word is rarely mentioned in their conversations.

Instead, they focus on love, honor and duty.

The Gulf War

The story starts in the early 1990s when local men and women, in military service, were sent overseas to serve in the Gulf War, leaving behind their mothers, fathers, siblings, grandparents, wives, husbands and children to cope with the extended and worrisome absence.

That grief and worry led to the start of local support groups that pulled people, such as Foster, Jody Gilbert, Sharon Bowden and Pauline Thacker, together with that single heartstring — each had a child serving in the Persian Gulf. Each waited for short and extremely expensive collect phone calls from their sons and daughters, and knew the pain losing a loved one, temporarily, to a far-off war.

“We met in a Bedford support group,” Foster said. “... And it came to be that we wanted to start one in Mitchell, for the Mitchell people. We were so green. We had no clue what we were doing. We just knew we needed each other to get us through.”

Gilbert, who lost her husband in the 16 years since the war started, said she and Foster would “burn up” each other’s phone lines, talking almost constantly and keeping one another’s mind off the conflict in the gulf.

“We enjoyed ourselves,” Gilbert said. “It wasn’t all bad. We had a good time, and we worried ourselves sick. But, just the companionship, was priceless. No one knew what we were going through except for those other people who were going through the same thing.”

Through the support group, fundraising started for a memorial to honor, not just the soldiers in the Gulf War, but all soldiers from the Mitchell area. That monument, which was dedicated on Memorial Day in 1991, now stands as an eternal symbol of that support in the center of the Mitchell Cemetery.

“We had so much support from the community,” Gilbert said. “People truly wanted to help and pitch in.”

The support group disbanded when the war was over, and the soldiers returned to the United States. But the couples involved never lost sight of one another.

A war typically divides, but this one united many toward a common cause.

A new war

It’s the same gulf and the same geography, but today’s war in Iraq is far different from what took place more than 16 years ago after coalition forces liberated Kuwait after former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein invaded the small country for its rich oil reserves.

Yet, for the parents and spouses of soldiers, the feelings are the same.

That’s where the Hoosier Hills Armed Forces Families Association comes into play.

Peabody, the mother of a soldier now serving in Iraq, and Betsy Henley work tirelessly through HHAFFA to support the troops serving overseas and the loved ones they were forced to leave behind. And both women draw their strength from experience.

“My husband served in Vietnam for a year,” Henley told the women gathered in Foster’s Mitchell home. “I know what it’s like to worry, to say goodbye ... I know how it feels, which is why we want to help the families of those who serve. I don’t think any mothers want their (children) to go (to war). It’s different being a wife, than it is to be a mom, but we’re here for both.”

Peabody agreed.

“It is hard, and we try to fill that void,” she said. “We have worries, and we’re scared, too. But we also share a few laughs along the way.”

New understanding

When the families of Gulf War soldiers disbanded their support group and completed the monument, some money remained in the bank, drawing interest for the past 16 years. Foster, joined by Gilbert, Thacker, Bowden and their surviving spouses, wanted to see the money — $800 worth — put to good use.

That’s when they contacted HHAFFA.

The money — once collected to honor soldiers — will stay in Lawrence County to help a new generation of soldiers. And the money is dedicated in honor of those members of the first support group — Peggy Davis, Vernon Gilbert and Nelson Thacker — who are no longer alive.

“As a mother of a soldier, I know how hard it is on the families when a loved one goes off to war,” Thacker said. “And I am happy that this money is going to help other soldiers from Lawrence County because a little bit of help really goes a long way.”

As the torch was passed that afternoon, new camaraderie was born. It certainly wasn’t based on war, but the love that is built around it.

Times-Mail Staff Writer Krystal Slaten welcomes comments and suggestions at 277-7264 or by e-mail at .