Linda Jenkin Costanzo brings to light the stories of mothers of slain Vietnam-era soldiers - The Buffalo News
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Linda Jenkin Costanzo brings to light the stories of mothers of slain Vietnam-era soldiers

She doesn’t want them – or their stories – forgotten.

Mothers whose children were killed while serving as soldiers in the Vietnam War went through pain and grief that is hard to comprehend.

Now, Linda Jenkin Costanzo, of Clarence, is doing her best to preserve and share the stories of these women and their staggering losses.

In a new book, “Our Sons, Our Heroes: Memories Shared by America’s Gold Star Mothers from the Vietnam War,” Costanzo presents the stories of 16 women from Western New York and around the country who became “gold star mothers” during the war.

A gold star mother is one who loses a son or daughter in military service.

“I said: ‘Whatever happened to the mothers?” Costanzo said of the curiosity that led her to begin her research project. “There was something in me, almost golden, prophetic words: ‘Go find out. Go find out.’ ”

In Western New York, some gold star mothers from the Vietnam era said they are grateful to have their stories told.

“I love to do it,” said Angola resident Betty Jackowiak, 89, of talking about her son Rick who died at 21, and whose story is included in the book. “I just feel that he’s sitting here with us right now.”

Shirley Luther, 89, a gold star mother from Grand Island whose story also is included in the book, said that talking about the way her son Bob was killed in Vietnam on Mother’s Day in 1970 is still painful.

“I find it’s always difficult to talk about it,” said Luther. “You’d think after 44 years it would be behind you. But it’s really something you never get past.”

The book is the first by Costanzo, 61, a Clarence resident, and was published by a press she created. It took her 13 years to complete.

“Our Sons, Our Heroes” is based on in-depth interviews that Costanzo did with women in the Buffalo area and elsewhere – in places like Indiana, Florida and Arizona – as well as her research in archives in Washington, D.C.

At the American Gold Star Mothers, a leader for the national organization said that the book will help others understand what women who lose sons or daughters in the military go through.

Readers may “gain more insight into what other women had to go through. What they endured,” said Judith C. Young, a past national president of the organization, whose son Jeffrey was killed at age 22 in 1983 while serving in the Marines.

“And yet they still pursued, kept going,” said Young, who lives in New Jersey.

Costanzo said she got the idea for the project after striking up a conversation with an older woman at a Theatre of Youth play in 2000. The woman mentioned her children.

“All of a sudden she said, ‘I had one other son, but he died in Vietnam,’ ” recalled Costanzo, who teaches Spanish at Erie Community College.

Costanzo said her empathy for the woman’s story grew when she thought about her own twin sons, who were kids at the time.

“I said, ‘Oh my gosh, my kids are 9 years old,’ ” Costanzo said, remembering the moment. “These kids that went off to Vietnam, their life was half over at 9 years old.”

Costanzo’s twin sons, Joshua and Brian, are now 23. Her husband, Dennis Costanzo, died in 2011 at age 62.

Vietnam-era mothers, and their experiences, especially appealed to Costanzo – though she did not lose any family members in that war.

Costanzo said she feels the stories of these women who watched their children – many of them young men only 19 or 20 years old – fight and die in Vietnam have not been fully captured.

Many of the sons of the women in the book were born soon after World War II, in 1947 to 1949. They died largely between 1967 and 1969.

At that time, some of these women never got to talk about what they were going through, as grieving mothers, Costanzo said.

Part of that may have been because families who lost sons in the Vietnam War were not always treated the same as gold star families from other eras, said Young.

“I’ve heard from some ... it wasn’t exactly easy for them,” Young said of Vietnam-era gold star mothers.

When the women spoke to Costanzo during their interviews, she said they shared their stories unstintingly, often bringing out photographs of their sons, or memorabilia related to their service.

One of the sons included in the book, Bruce Carter, won the Medal of Honor for throwing himself on a grenade to save his friends. Others also were decorated for their service.

“It was as if the dam had broken,” Costanzo said, of the memories of the women who spoke with her.

Some of the women include:

• Theresa Boryszewski of West Seneca, who lost her son Stephen in April 1969. Stephen Boryszewski was a Marine and a lance corporal who was killed while on patrol. He was 19. Shortly before he died, he had given his mother and father some money so they could buy new clothes and take a trip to New York City.

• Georgie Carter Krell, of Florida, whose only son, Bruce Carter, a private in the Marines, was killed in 1969 by a grenade. Carter, 19 at his death, was awarded the Medal of Honor for his service in 1971.

• Shirley Popoff, the mother of Curtis Eugene Crawford, a 19-year-old from Dunkirk who was a corporal in the Marines when he was killed in 1967.

• Betty Jackowiak of Angola, whose son Henry Patrick “Rick” was a Marine killed in 1967, after he had been in Vietnam just three weeks. In civilian life, Jackowiak was known for working in the lakeside business operated by his family, a tavern located near where Mickey Rats is today in Angola on the Lake.

Betty Jackowiak said that when she heard about Costanzo’s book on gold star mothers, “I was so pleased that she was doing this.”

Jackowiak said that she constanstly thinks about Rick.

“I still miss him, of course,” said Jackowiak, who has two other children. “I’m always looking at snapshots of the family, you know.”

On Grand Island, Shirley Luther said that certain parts of the year are hard for her. This time of year is one of them.

“Every Mother’s Day it makes it extra hard,” said Luther, whose son was killed that day.

Luther said she thinks it’s good that people understand what families like hers went through.

“I think it’s important people know another side of the Vietnam War – the mothers and the families that were left behind. And the stories of what the men went through,” she said.

“It’s a sad book to read,” Luther said, of Costanzo’s book. “But it’s important the stories are out there.”

Some of the women struggled for years in their own lives after their sons were killed.

“Most of these guys were the first ones in the family, or the only son,” Costanzo said.

Others in these families suffered, too, by these losses. For the siblings of a soldier killed in war, Costanzo said, “they now have a hole in their heart” that never is healed.

Many of the women who spoke to Costanzo – some of whom have died since their interviews – said that they were helped by joining supportive and volunteer-oriented groups.

Some became members of the American Gold Star Mothers in Washington, D.C.

Young, the past president of the national organization, said that work is underway to create a national memorial or monument to the country’s gold star mothers, in the Washington area. She has been working on that effort since 2007.

By the end of her project, Costanzo came to see some common themes in the stories of the women she talked to.

“They survived because of faith, families, friends, church,” she said.

She noticed one other undercurrent in their conversation with her about their lost children.

“They all wanted to know that their sons did not die in vain,” Costanzo said.

And, she said, she gained an appreciation of how the long-ago war continues to matter, even now.

“War is brutal on all of society,” Costanzo said. “To think a 40-year-old war still affects all of this country today, “it’s scary.

“It’s tragic.”


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