“Everyone is called to service; some serve in uniform, the rest of us should be serving here supporting them,” says Susan Payne, a Blue Star Mother with two sons in the Marines. Both joined right after high school. One has served 23 years, and is currently ranked as Sergeant Major; the other served five years. “I couldn’t be more proud of them,” she said.
My father was a Marine,” Susan added. “He was a star track athlete at Milby High School, in Houston [Texas]. He got scholarshipped to go to Rice University. He planned to train for the Olympics, and then the Korean War happened. He dropped out of school and volunteered to go be in the Marines. While he was deployed, he was one of the first survivors of the epidemic hemorrhagic fever. Although he recovered and continued to serve, the effects of that disease were with him the rest of his life. He never talked about his service until my boys went into the Marines. They had a bond that was hard to describe. He loved to sit and listen to them talk about the equipment, the weapons, the different places they would go and things they would get to do. They understood each other so well. Although it had been 50 years since my father had been in boot camp, when I showed him the pictures of the boys at graduation, he said, “It hasn’t changed a bit.” It was just the same. There’s just a bond there.”
When her eldest son entered the marines, Susan wasn’t as connected to the recruiters or the process, “I had never been through it before, and didn’t know what to expect. So when my younger son went, from day one I wanted to be involved. I wanted to do something to help. I didn’t want to just sit at home.” So she began to volunteer at the USO (United Service Organizations). “The last people you see in the civilian world were the USO at the airport. I was one of those that got to hug and encourage the [recruits] on the last day of civilian life. Because my older son had been a drill instructor, I could tell them what to expect and what would help them along the way. My younger son told me how special it was to get that last little bit of encouragement before he stepped on the plane.”
“Most of the time I was at [the George] Bush [Intercontinental] Airport. I was usually there on Monday afternoon, the day the marines send kids to boot camp. Usually, late in the afternoon we would get a busload of them. We would know they were coming. They were so easy to spot. They would come in with their brown envelopes (because when you are a Marine you can’t take anything with you, except your orders, $10, and the Gideon Bible they give you when you swear in). When they came into the USO, we would feed them, they could check their Facebook account, and play video games, if they wanted to, before they got on the plane. Some of them know everything they need to know; some know nothing. Some have flown before; some have never been out of the state of Texas, never gone anywhere on their own. Some have families that are very encouraging; some have families that don’t even say good-bye to them. You hear all the stories.
“On this particular day, we had 25 come. When they left, I said, ‘I want to take your picture.’ We went outside the USO, into the hall at the airport, and somebody took our picture. Five of them came back to me and said, ‘Would you write me in boot camp?’ I said, ‘Yes, I will.’ The only way I could is if they gave me the name of their recruiter. So they gave me their recruiters. I called their recruiters, and got the addresses for boot camp. I wrote them that day. I put inside every letter an envelope that was stamped with my name on it and a piece of paper that said, ‘If you have a chance, let me know how you’re doing.’ I mailed those five letters. I went to my mailbox a week later, and there were five letters. They all told me those were the first letters they received. One told me he had never had anybody tell him he was loved, or that he could do it, or supported him in any way. I started writing those kids until they graduated. One of them dressed up in his dress blues and came back to the airport to find me. I wasn’t there. He called me from the airport and said, ‘Mrs. Payne, I did it. I’m here in my dress blues to see you.’ I’m so sorry I missed him. About five years later, after my husband and I moved to east Texas, he called me when he was passing through, and said, ‘Do you have time for a cup of coffee?’ I said, ‘Yes, I do.’ He and I are still very good friends. He lives in Hawaii now. He went to school out there, and he’s doing really, really well. Once you’re connected, you’re connected.”
“When my younger son went into the Marines, and he was gone on his first deployment, that’s when I became a Blue Star Mother. I had never heard of that. When I went in, I loved it,” Susan said. Susan became a member of the Houston chapter, and later helped form the Piney Woods Blue Star Mothers. “A Blue Star Mother is a mother or stepmother that has a son or daughter who is serving. Once you are a Blue Star Mother, you’re always a Blue Star Mother–unless you become a Gold Star Mother. A Gold Star Mother is one whose son or daughter has been killed in action.” Fathers, siblings, grandparents, neighbors and friends can be associates of the Blue Star Mothers and show their support by sending birthday cards, letters, care packages, and prayers; hosting fundraisers and events to promote awareness; welcoming home or sending off. “It’s a place where everyone can connect and share their stories,” Susan said. “Either you’re going through something right now, or are about to go through it. Just having somebody there to encourage you goes a long way. When something comes up, a Blue Star Mother is there.”
“In the Marines, we have a saying: ‘My son has many brothers, so I have many sons.’ That is true. You become a big family,” Susan said. “Things are always changing; people are always moving. The recruiters we started with moved; some statewide, some out of state. I kept in contact with them. When my son was in boot camp, he would write and tell me about his new friends. I started writing them; they started writing me. That’s been many many years now and we still are in touch. They’ve come home, gotten married, gotten new jobs, whatever. It’s amazing how, through the years, you run into people you have been with before, and you reconnect just like it was yesterday. We’re still very much connected.”
“The hardest day I had as a Marine mom was on a Sunday afternoon. We had gone to church, we were sitting at home, and I got an email that there had been an accident on my son’s deployment. They were headed out, but they were stopping in Hawaii for training exercises. We were told that for a week or so all communications were off. So I went to the internet and I googled the Hawaii news. On the beach, there were people who had their cell phones and they were filming one of the Ospreys that was going by, and it crashed. I knew, ‘My son is in Hawaii. He’s on a training mission. He’s on an Osprey. I don’t know if he’s on that Osprey or not.’
“There’s no way to describe the feeling that I had. My husband, on the other hand, who was calm, said to me, ‘No news is good news.’ But it is hard to wait. I called my older son and said, ‘What can you find out?’ He said, ‘No news is good news.’ We waited, and we waited, and stayed up all night long and listened to the clock tick until 17 hours later we were told that all the families had been notified. They were telling us one was killed; the rest were injured.
“The next day I got a phone call from my son. He was greatly affected. I said, ‘Are you alright?’ He said, ‘Yes, but everyone isn’t, and you know them.’ But he couldn’t tell me who they were until they released everything. I talked to him for a few minutes and I hung up and I sobbed because he was ok, but there was another mother who also waited, and hers was not ok.”
“That was the first week of my son’s first deployment. They had to pick themselves up, get back flying, and head off to their deployment. They took a flag and flew it on the top of their Osprey on their mission. When they came home for Homecoming, they presented it to his mother. When we went in to Homecoming, we got to meet the family who had lost their son, which was one of my son’s best friends. It was a really, really hard time. I was so happy to see [my son] when he got off, but he hugged me quick and said, ‘Mom, I’ll be back.’ One by one, all of those young Marines went to her and hugged her, because her son had many brothers and she had many sons.
“When your child signs up to be in the military, everyone knows the risk, but you pray to God you don’t have to go through that. There was another crash that my son was not involved in. Two helicopters collided in Hawaii and all of them were killed. When I was at the USO, I was in the Houston area. We received them back. One of them was one of my son’s good friends that he had gone through training with. There aren’t words to describe standing on the tarmac of the airport runway, watching that flag draped casket come down and knowing that it could be yours,” Susan said. “Everyday in the news you hear of casualties, of wounded, of accidents. Most people are oblivious to it; it’s just another bit of news. But to a military family, we stop, we listen, we grieve, because we all know if it’s not ours, it could be, and it is somebody else’s. It’s not just a news story, it’s a person.”
“Use your experiences that you’ve had as opportunities to encourage somebody else,” Susan urges. “Everybody can do something. Everyone should do something. People say, ‘I don’t know how to help. I don’t know what to do.’ I teach my kids if they see somebody in uniform to say ‘thank you’ because freedom is never free. I want them to be appreciative of the sacrifices that have been made for them and for me.
“Everybody can pray for their health, safety, protection and provision; that their equipment works; for the right food and a good place to sleep. One of my chaplain friends told me, ‘The greatest obstacle is you can’t tell a friend from an enemy over there,’ so pray for wisdom and focus. Everybody can pray.
“There are a lot of places that collect items to send. Anyone can send a care package. You can google what to put in there. Think about the simplest items, baby wipes, chapstick, anything that would make them more comfortable. They are serving for you! They are sacrificing for you!
“When somebody comes back, whether they look like they’ve been wounded or not, know they’re all wounded. All their scars aren’t visible. They see and have to do things and be in places that we couldn’t even dream of. Everyone can thank them. There are only two people who have ever offered to die for you: Jesus Christ and the American soldier. We owe them all.