Norma Luther rallied for a Gold Star Family Monument to be dedicated in Wilmington. It's finally going to happen this fall. Norma says this is an important part of the healing process for families who have lost loved ones in the military. As a Gold Star Mother, Norma has insight on this.
Norma lost her son, Captain Glen P. Adams, Jr., in 1988. He was a helicopter pilot and died in a training exercise in Germany. Norma says being involved with American Gold Star Mothers helped her heal by channeling her energy toward helping other military families. She rose through the ranks of the organization, becoming the National President in 2011. She formed the Azalea Chapter of Gold Star Mothers in Wilmington in 2005.
New Hanover County Commissioners were inspired by Norma's wish for this Family Monument. It will be installed at Hugh MacRae Park and dedicated in a ceremony on September 24 at 11:00 am. Funds for the maintenance of the Memorial are being collected here. There are 38 of these monuments across the United States; this will be the first one dedicated in North Carolina.
Listen to Norma Luther talk about this project above, and find our extended conversation below.
Norma: I have kind of been the instigator of the Gold Star Family Monument here in Wilmington. There are several now around the country, and I thought that this area would be perfect to have one because we have so many military installations within a few hundred miles, some even closer. And we have Gold Star families here, especially from my chapter, Azalea Chapter of the American Gold Star Mothers. And this is something that we all have wanted, a place that we can go to and remember those that we've lost.
Gina: Tell me about American Gold Star Mothers.
Norma: All right. It's an organization that's been around for 90 years this year. It was founded in 1928 by a mother who had lost her son in World War I. He had actually gone to Europe as a pilot through the Canadian air force because we did not have an air force at that time and he was lost somewhere over France. She kept waiting for information on him and while she was doing that, she decided that she would go down to the hospitals there in the DC area where she lived and help out. She was thinking perhaps he came back disoriented, not knowing who he was or where he was. And so she helped the other wounded soldiers that were being treated in the hospitals and from that, other mothers started coming just to help. And that's how our organization was formed.
Gina: Did she ever find her son?
Norma: They did. And he had been shot down over France.
Gina: And so while she was working with these other mothers, they said, let's start something?
Norma: Right. They knew by that time they knew that working for others was the best solution for the grief that they shared a. and I find that today, the more I work, the more I put myself out there to help others. and specifically in the service organizations. We work tirelessly for the wounded warriors, the active military and their families and Vietnam Veterans especially hold a place in my heart because I know a lot of those mothers. I'm not a Vietnam mother, but I was kind of caught in the middle there and so I do know an awful lot of them. And they went through so much, not only losing their child, but the way they were treated here while the war was going on is just unbelievable.
Gina: Can you, will you tell me about your story of losing your child?
Norma: I'd love to. I always love talking about my son. He was always fun loving looking for things to do concerning flying. He loved flying. So when he graduated from high school, he enlisted in the army because he wanted to go fly helicopters in. The fastest way to do that was to join the army, go to their flight school in Alabama, and then he'd be on his way. Well, they singled him out and said, would you like to go to West Point? He was very, very smart and so he told the, the processing officer, he said, "Can I check with my parents?" He was that kind of kid, just so great. But we said, well, sure, go for it. And then he ended up getting an appointment from the congressman there in the state where we were living and went on to west point and graduated in 1984.
Then he went to flight school and learned to fly helicopters and then he was stationed in Germany and it was just a routine mission. He was in an a helicopter that wasn't equipped to fly and fog and bad weather and he ran into it going across a mountain pass, clipped a tree branch, and then he crashed.
Gina: And so this was very unexpected.
Norma: Totally. I thought he at work, people would say to me, aren't you afraid of him flying helicopters? And I said, no, there's really no war going on. And I had no idea that there were as many training accidents and, and just ordinary everyday accidents by serving in the military as I've found that is very dangerous sometimes. And that's what ... I was just clueless.
So when it happened, I was totally devastated because I was so unprepared.
Gina: And at what point did you become aware of the Gold Star Mothers and did you start your healing path through service and through connecting with other people?
Norma: Pretty quickly, actually. I lived in Springfield, Virginia at the time and worked in Washington, DC and northern Virginia there. I worked for the phone company at that time. And so I would walk from my office in DC down to the Martin Luther King Library. I've always been a reader. So I went down there to find books on grief. I thought surely there was an answer in one of these many, many books and I was going to find it. I would go every day and I'd flip through them at night if it was something that was kind of apropos to me, then I would read it and then I'd go on and take them back the next day.
Speaker 2: And this went on and on. Well, finally one day I finished a book and I was looking at the list of references in the back and it said American Gold Star Mothers for mothers who lost his son in the military. I went, oh, that's for me. So I contacted them and I went to my first meeting and they were mothers from Vietnam, and they asked me if I was a Beirut mom because that was obviously younger than they were. And I, I wasn't quite sure what it, Beirut mom was because the bombing had occurred and I knew about it, but I didn't place it in that situation. So that was my first meeting and I left there thinking, I can't go back to that, you know, I, I don't know if I fit in with that. But then the next day I was like, oh, when is the next meeting, I've got to go back, I need to share with those women.
Speaker 2: And it was kind of like, once things settled in ... it was hard to assimilate things in that state. The, the overriding factor was the grief and you had to settle, let things settle and sift through the grief and then you could process a little bit. So, they actually took me under their wings and helped me, get into all the projects that they had. And that was the beginning because I kept thinking-the Vietnam Moms, it had been 20 years since they lost their son or daughter. And I thought if they can do that, I'm surely going to be able to get somewhere with this.
Gina: How long ago was that for you? When did your son had the accident?
Norma: That was April fifth, 1988, this past April was 30 years.
Gina: And what was his name?
Norma: Captain Glen P. Adams Jr.
Gina: How active have you been over the years with a Gold Star Mothers? Did you really throw yourself into it and really take it on?
Norma: I did in the beginning. And then life happened. My husband and I, we didn't grieve the same way and that's a death toll for a marriage. And we worked at it for a long time. And then finally we got divorced. We'd been married 31 years and got divorced. And different things happened with my job ... So finally I was remarried and we moved down here to Wilmington and I retired and I'm sitting around looking at where I am, what I'm doing. I did work over a few times over the year, I got involved in different projects but not whole heartedly, just me getting my feet wet with things. And I thought, you know, this is, this is the time that I really need to devote to this organization. They saved me and I've got to work to keep it going so that I could help them save other mothers.
So I ran an ad in the paper, asked for other Gold Star Mothers. And there was a lady who moved down from Rhode Island who is also, her son had been a pilot and so we were kind of kindred souls. And we finally got our five members, you had to have five to qualify for a new chapter. And it turned out we had the, two of us, a mother from the 9/11 bombing at the Pentagon and one whose son died, it was a helicopter crash and he also was in Germany, it was a training accident. And we had another one from the Vietnam War. He wasn't a pilot, but he, he was in a helicopter that crashed there.
So the five of us sat around this table, one of the restaurants-McCallister's-and we went around the table and we told our story and introduced ourselves and all that. And we cried and cried and cried to have the mothers did never had a chance to even tell their story and it was so emotional for them. So we elected officers and decided what we'd do, we'd have meetings and then we'd choose projects and so forth. So that started our chapter here and that was in 2005.
And from there I went on to become a Department President and that was made up of Virginia, North Carolina and Tennessee. And then after that, I got on the National Board and then was elected as National President, that was in 2011-12. And that was the most amazing thing that's ever happened to me because I had the opportunity to meet mothers from all over the country and to go to some of their chapters and help them get started and install their new officers and so forth, and to help them with learning where to put their time and energy in their service. So again, it was helping me process through and I got stronger and stronger from doing that.
Gina: I don't know that the grief of losing someone ever really ends. What would you say happens to the grief?
Norma: Absolutely. It does not ever go away and I never sugarcoat it for someone because it's always there. Under the surface a lot, which helps you function from day to day, but you never know. You might be- for me, I might be dusting pictures and I see one that's particularly poignant to me and bam, I'm right back there again and crying. But it just lasts maybe a minute or two rather than, "I'm done for the rest of the day" type of sobbing and crying and remembering. But I learned that after we moved down here and I was involved so heavily, I learned pretty quickly that because I had all these things that I needed to do to help another person, like a service person, someone who had served like my son in what I want someone to be doing for him iff he had come back? I would want mothers to be helping him and his family. And then of course we're also helping each other.
: We're not a grief group. Not at all. But we do say that through service to others, the griever begins to heal. And you never heal completely. It's always right there at the surface ready to be scratched. But you do get able to process it when it scratched.
Gina: You kind of answered my next question- how does this organization, what exactly does it do for mothers? It sounds like it is all about the service and, and actually transforming that, that kind of pain and making it into giving what you would want for your own child and honoring ... honoring not just individual service people but the service as a whole, like the, the military as a whole, the country as a whole. The big idea of things you know, that your child was part of.
: Right. In my mind, and I think a lot of mothers feel this way, we are part of a big service family, military service family. Army, the Navy, the Marines, the Air Force, Coast Guard. Whether we're part of the Army- we're part of all of them now. That's how I like to look at it. I don't see a Marine, I don't see a, an Air Force person. I see a family member. And I mean we have a lot of camaraderie, when we sing the songs and we stand up and clap, you know, really loud for our Army guy or whatever. But that's, that's just for fun. We are a big service family and as such, we want to help in any way we can. But that extends to their families too because we know that their kids, the mom, the sisters, brothers, cousins, even, they're, they're all affected. And that leads to why I really want this Monument and so happy that it's going to be built here.
Gina: Okay. Let's, let's talk about the Monument.
Norma: It's Gold Star families Memorial Monument.
Gina: And there's a plan in place for this Monument to be here in Wilmington at Hugh McRae Park, September 24th.
Norma: At this point in time it should be here and we should be at 11:00 on that morning having our dedication.
Gina: What does this Monument mean?
Norma: When I first heard of it, I, I stopped and thought, what? For families. Huh? That's unusual because you're right, we do have many, many Monuments. They're everywhere and there's always somebody who wants to put up another Monument.
For me it was so important because my son is not a part of any of those Monuments because he died an accidentt. He wasn't -KIA is the common term they use when you're killed in battle or an action and that's not all there is to being in the military. And there are. I did a study when I was president of the national organization and over a 20 year period from 1980 to 2000, there were over 20,000 accidental service deaths. That's a lot of people and I'm sure the numbers are not really reflecting the true, the true number. And we have many more since then because you, every day you open the newspaper hear the news, whatever, and other helicopters crashed with four or five on board or some other horrible accident.
And in the past there hasn't been a lot of attention paid to that. Not nationally. The family and the community, yes, they do notice it and they pay their respects. But nobody's ever really said, oh, you know, we need a Monument for these people. That just hasn't been done. And I sort of understand why. But now this leaves the families of those accidental deaths, the ones that are not KIA, leaves those families kind of hanging there. The death occurs, you have the funeral service and and a few people remember maybe a month away they'll send your card in. Bam. That's it. There's never any other mention of it. And I always felt like that was just disrespectful in a way. Not only to the service person but to his family members.
So when I heard of this Monument, I thought, this is great. This is wonderful. I'm strong. I don't think personally that I would have to have it so much at this point, but think back to myself thirty years ago. It would have been the most wonderful thing in the world to know that there was going to be a Monument in his memory for me to, to actually say something about my son being worthy of being remembered on a Monument.
It's kind of hard to express it, but I just keep thinking of all of the dads. They don't get much attention. The siblings, aunts, uncles, cousins. Sometimes even the best of friends, they suffer terribly and there's no place for them to put that, nothing to look at or touch. And I just, I think our nation will heal better having this there to project our feelings toward. And remember that person.
Gina: This is the Herschel Woody Williams, Medal of Honor Foundation, they are the people who make the Monuments.
Norma: Herschel Woody Williams was a Medal of Honor recipient and he was at Iwo Jima. Mr. Williams decided that he wanted to do something for the fallen and their families particularly. And so he, with his family members, set up this foundation to build these Monuments. And they designed it and a setup, the actual panels, what they will reflect. In the middle of this Monument, there are four panels and the middle of it, there is a cutout of a soldier with a rifle across his shoulder. And it is just so humbling.
Gina: Here's a quote here that says, Dying for freedom isn't the worst thing that can happen. Being forgotten is.
Norma: Bingo. That's it. it's not just the service person that's forgotten. It's also his family members are forgotten. People don't remember the sacrifice that they've endured. And I think this really brings attention to it. And, and I truly, truly believe that rather than causing more grief to the community and the family members, it will provide a release and a building of emotions that are good and honorable and make us all proud that we have people who stand up for us right up to giving their lives. And then we have to stand beside those that lost that person and move them along so that they can live their lives halfway decently.
Gina: And tell me, how can people help? Because there is a fundraiser going on.
Norma: Well, the [New Hanover] County Commissioners, agreed to foot the bill to build the Monument. And they also gave the land at Hugh McCrae Park. It's probably, I don't know, 300, 400 feet down from the Veterans memorial. And the spot is absolutely gorgeous. When you look at over the hill behind the Monument, there's the little covered bridge over little pond down there. and it's just such a peaceful spot. I could, if I had been dreaming of the perfect spot, I don't think I could have dreamed that one up. It's going to be absolutely beautiful and what we're raising money for now is a maintenance fund because I'm the storms that we have in this area that come up and there's no way to prepare things for it, if we should have vandalism, heaven forbid, but you know it does happen. Anything that could happen that would cause us to have to work on the Monument, it's going to cost money. And so the Gold Star Mothers decided that we would like to have a fund to give to the county park system to use in that event and wouldn't have to go around collecting money to do it if and when it happened. So that's what we're collecting the money for now. But I am so thankful to the County Commissioners for seeing the purpose behind this and feeling as strongly as I did about it. I'm just on cloud nine.
Gina: If a mother wanted to get in touch with you, what's the best way for them to find more information?
Norma: Well, they can call me or email me, either one. I'm always happy to give it out. I had it published in the newspaper recently.
Gina: Right here I see NLuther@ec.rr.com. 910-297-6512.
Norma: And I promise I am very responsive. When I was National President, I had the phone calls on weekends when the service officer wasn't going to be around. I had the calls forwarded to my cell number and I shocked a lot of people on a Saturday night that was calling and thinking they're going to have to leave a message and I would answer-oh, are you the President? I just enjoy talking to the mothers and anybody else that calls and wants information. I just enjoy letting people know about us because we have helped so many family members, particularly the mothers down through the years. If you make the mother able to deal with what she has, you make her a better mother for the whole family. So that's my goal.