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Parents of war dead push for special license plates

For decades, qualified Washington veterans could buy special license plates that honor wartime honors and service.


February 15, 2008

No similar honor has existed for parents united by the red-trimmed banners framing a gold star that hang in the windows of their homes. The gold stars are the keys to an exclusive club in which they never sought membership, symbolizing a son or daughter lost in the service of the country.

Now, the increased number of Iraq and Afghanistan casualties has reignited the state's chapter of Gold Star Mothers, along with a legislative effort to recognize their loss.

Senate Bill 6678, sponsored by state Sen. Mary Margaret Haugen, D-Camano Island, would create a license plate honoring those united by pride and sorrow.

The Gold Star Mothers say a simple aluminum metal license plate is no hollow honor.

It perpetuates a memory, helps to unify those whose common thread is the unnatural act of outliving a child, informs the public about the significance of the gold star, and even helps them reach out to veterans, they say.

"We want to increase community awareness of the significance of the gold star, to let people see 'here is a family that had a member who made the ultimate sacrifice,' " said Myra Rintamaki of Lynnwood, a Harborview Medical Center nurse and president of Washington State Gold Star Mothers.

Her son, Marine Lance Cpl. Steven A. Rintamaki, was killed in action in Iraq on Sept. 16, 2004.

"We have found in associating with different people that even military people don't recognize the significance of the gold star," Rintamaki said.

In a statement, Haugen said, "There are plenty of cars driving around with yellow ribbons that show support for our military, but I can't imagine any tribute even beginning to compensate a mother who's lost a child in the service of their country. This is just a small way to recognize their loss, and to give the rest of us an opportunity to thank them."

American Gold Star Mothers Inc. grew out of the wartime losses of World War I and was incorporated in 1928. During WWI, blue star flags were displayed in homes around the nation for each child serving in the military. A gold star was superimposed if that service member died in combat or from wounds or illness.

Washington's Gold Star Mothers chapter revived in late 2006, spearheaded by a handful of Seattle-area mothers who lost sons in Iraq -- Rintamaki, Shellie Starr, Linda Swanberg, DeEtte Wood and Dedi Noble.

The membership has grown to 30. The group is reaching out more to Eastern Washington and to Vietnam-era Gold Star Mothers, as well as to active but unofficial chapters in Alaska and surrounding states.

The license plate issue is a national project of American Gold Star Mothers. At least 14 other states have approved inclusive "Gold Star Family" or "Gold Star Parent" license plates.

Washington's gold star moms and Haugen teamed up by coincidence.

"The funny part is, both of us were working on it, and neither of us know the other was working on it," Rintamaki said. They learned about each other's effort through the state Department of Veterans Affairs.

Concerns were raised, especially from a senator who asked, "What about gold star dads?"

A more inclusive "Gold Star Parents" or "Gold Star Families" was proposed. The bill covers eligible moms and dads.

"Being a gold star mom by definition means looking out for the rest of the family," Rintamaki said. "In our private sessions we often discuss the effects of loss upon spouses and other children, and they are often included in our meetings."

If they could, however, the mothers would extend their compassion further. Rintamaki said mothers-in-law ought to be included. The group also tried unsuccessfully to acquire feedback from state Gold Star Wives, a separate organization, she said.

The Washington license plate proposal was first raised in last year's legislative session but failed owing to budget constraints and a moratorium on specialty plates.

This year, a funding source was found in money earmarked for World War II "Pearl Harbor Survivor" plates. As those veterans pass away, that fund remains untapped. Washington recipients of the Medal of Honor and Purple Heart medals have separate specialty plates.

A companion bill has been introduced in the House by a South King County Democrat, state Rep. Geoff Simpson.