Marine Corps Base Quantico --
Mitty Mirrer became a gold star child at birth.
Half a world away, Mitty’s father, Marine Capt. Bill Griffis III, was killed when a bomb exploded in his helicopter while on a mission as an advisor in Vietnam.
Just after Mitty was born and still in the maternity ward, a chaplain and another Marine Corps officer darkened the hatch at the hospital and told Sally B. Griffis that her husband was dead.
Mitty and her then four-year-old sister Sarah had lost their father to war.
They were now Gold Star Children. During the Vietnam War, an estimated 20,000 American children also lost a parent to the war.
In the 1970s, military widows were given 30 days to move off the base. Because of this Sally raised her two young girls in her father’s hometown, San Angelo, Texas.
Mitty’s mother surrounded herself with family. There were no support groups for families, certainly no internet to reach out. There were no books on the shelf of “How to be a military widow”… there was nothing, but silence.
“That silence is a common thread for my generation of Gold Star Children from the Vietnam War. This is likely true for the many, many children left behind during World War II and the Korean War, as well,” Mirrer said.
“The difference with the silence for the Vietnam War, was many of the mothers thought they were protecting their children by not talking about the ‘unpopular’ war. It was a travesty that children and families were essentially ignored during that time. Like our Vietnam veterans of today, our Gold Star Children from the Vietnam War are part of a growing group of people working to ensure today’s Gold Star Children are empowered by community and recognized for the sacrifice their families have made for this country.”
As children, Mitty’s sister and she grieved in silence.
But more importantly, “we had no idea we had the right to grieve our father, somehow we understood that kind of emotion and acknowledgement was too much. Our family simply didn’t have the emotional resources to deal with the Vietnam War death of my dad,” she said.
Mitty began to observe the effects of the loss of her father as she grew older. Questions came to her mind.
As she grew up, she attended the University of Mississippi and graduated from the School of Journalism, then began working as a broadcast news reporter for affiliates in Philadelphia, New Orleans and Jackson, Miss.
In 1992, Mitty made her first visit to the Vietnam Memorial Wall in Washington, D.C.
“I went to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial as a reporter and saw my father’s name on the Wall for the first time. This was very difficult, but it gave me context for being there. I needed that. It felt so emotional,” she said.
In 1997, when she was working for the ABC affiliate in New Orleans, Mitty’s mom was researching widows of war and found little information. The only information she could find was based on war widows of Israel. She decided to interview widows from the Vietnam War.
“I went to my news director and pitched her the story of our family going to Vietnam, to the place my father died; a man of whom I knew very little. Mitty was 27 years old.
“I brought a videographer with me and produced a documentary series on our family’s journey. The series broadcast to Tribune stations around the country and won several awards. I began to feel like my father’s daughter. I knew a little more about who he was, where he served and I walked hand-in-hand with my mother and sister across the field where he had died,” Mitty said.
Mitty earned a Regional Edward R. Murrow Award for her documentary series on her own family’s journey to Vietnam.
“Simply recognizing the loss is tremendous for a child, for anyone,” Mitty said.
But this would not be her last documentary.
After 9/11, Mitty began to wonder about the children who would be left behind by today’s wars.
Bonnie Carroll, who is a military widow and founder of Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS) helped create community through her growing non-profit organization for these families. Children, parents, extended family all had a place to talk about their shared military loss.
“I mentored a child who had lost her father in Iraq and was overcome by how articulate these children could be about the deaths of their active duty parent. There were several Vietnam era Gold Star Children who were reaching out as well, it was their intent to make sure this generation of Gold Star Children would not be forgotten,” Mitty said. “With the support of so many people, I went back to several military survivor conferences and began to interview widows, widowers and Gold Star Children from two generations of war.”
According to Ami Neiberger-Miller, a case manager at TAPS, there are 4,742 Gold Star Children from Operations Enduring Freedom (Afghanistan) and Iraqi Freedom (Iraq). But, Miller states that figure is low because it only counts those children whose parents died in theater. The number does not include those parents who died as a result of accidents or suicide.
The death of a parent impacts the life of a child forever.
Eight years ago, Mitty began another film journey. To tell the story of today’s Gold Star Children.
Mitty has produced a new, hour-long documentary film, “Gold Star Children: Two Generations Sharing Loss and Healing,” and takes an intimate look at American children who’ve lost a parent to war across two generations.
The documentary is told through the eyes of a nine-year-old-girl whose father was killed in Iraq.
Gold Star Children is a 501c3 not-for-profit to help raise awareness about our children of the fallen. The film is available starting Veteran’s Day for digital download at www.goldstarchildren.org.
At noon on Veteran’s Day, there will be a free showing at the Women in Military Service for America (WIMSA) Theater at Arlington National Cemetery.
The Pentagon Channel will also broadcast “Gold Star Children” at 8 p.m. Monday, Nov. 11.
On Nov. 14, the film will be shown at the U.S. Naval Academy during a private showing.
The film follows the parallel journeys of two generations of grieving children – recent war orphans who’ve lost parents serving in Iraq, Afghanistan, Bosnia and here at home, with the now adult children who lost parents serving in Vietnam.
“Gold Star Children” weaves stories together showing the similarities and the differences between children of these two generations, and more importantly, shows they can help each other heal when they come together.
For each child in the film, there are hundreds whose stories remain untold, but reflect the same tragedy and heartache. Yet, like the children in the film, they are resilient and strong, growing up to epitomize the very best of America’s spirit of public service and coming together after tragedy. These families understand the heart of America in a way that few others do.
They are the faces of war on the home front and their inspiring stories of growth and love after going through trauma and living with loss, now has voice.
Capt. William A. Griffis III was a 1964 graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy. He was on his second tour of duty when he was killed … just hours before Mitty was born. He never knew he had a second daughter.
“My whole goal is to have people today ask themselves ‘what is it that I can do to help’ Gold Star Children,” Mitty said.