Mothers Left Behind


By Sherri Williams
News21 / Syracuse University

Daralyn Hollenbeck almost crumbled before her only son went off to war in Iraq.

She didn’t know how to say goodbye to Josh Hollenbeck, 29, without falling apart.

Her worries overwhelmed her. Daralyn crawled into bed late one night about a week before her son’s deployment and cried uncontrollably.

What if he doesn’t come back?

The 51-year-old Daralyn, of Oroville, Wash., was consoled by the only other woman in her life who understood her agony – her daughter. Holly Nelson, 25, held her mother in her arms and coached her through brother Josh’s deployment.

Holly knows the need for comfort before combat. She’s been through two deployments with her own husband.

“She was really inconsolable that night,” Holly said. “I encouraged her to talk to Josh about the what-ifs.”

As the country remains involved in two wars, including the longest in United States history, families are feeling the toll of having a loved one at war.

Not every soldier leaves children, spouses, brothers and sisters at home. But all of them have mothers. And moms with children in the armed forces deeply feel the fear of burying a child.

That angst is pushing mothers to search for one another to share their worries about war. The Blue Star Mothers of America, a nonprofit group of mothers whose children have served in the military, has seen its ranks swell with an increase of about 120 more chapters in the past three years, said Wendy Hoffman, president of the group.

During WWII the national organization was founded as a service group for mothers to support troops. Now a need for camaraderie is prompting them to join as their children are shipped to war zones, Hoffman said.

“The mothers need this,” said Hoffman, whose organization now has about 10,000 members and 220 chapters. “They need that connection. They’re lost. They’re scared. They don’t know where to go, what to do or where to turn.”

Daralyn eventually turned to the Blue Star Mothers after her son’s deployment.

Daralyn saw other mothers who stood strong as their children headed into combat.

She, like other women with relatives in the military, heard the advice, “Send them off without a tear.”

Daralyn tried hard to be like that.

Her smile hid her horror. Silence muted her terrifying thoughts.

But her fears simmered and her anxiety eventually exploded. A few nights before Daralyn’s son headed to Iraq she became light-headed. Her heart raced. Pain shot through her shoulder and neck. She thought she was having a heart attack.

The severe panic attack led to a three-night hospital stay.

“When my son got deployed it sent me into a whole different emotional realm,” said Daralyn, who now takes Celexa to control her anxiety. “When it happened to me I realized it was hard to just try to put on a brave face.”

Daralyn was already worried about her deployed son-in-law. And she was weary from taking the eight-hour round-trip drive to Spokane, Wash., from Oroville, Wash., to tend to Holly and her young son.

She didn’t immediately tell her friends about her breakdown. Daralyn was embarrassed because her feelings hijacked her health.

“I kind of kept it a secret,” Daralyn said. “I was ashamed because I obviously wasn’t handling something right.”

After she finally opened up to a friend whose son is in the military she learned she wasn’t alone. Other mothers were suffering in silence.

Daralyn has started to form an Oroville-based Blue Star Mothers chapter to unify moms in the area.

Even before the group’s first meeting women called her and shared the same dread and distress. Daralyn learned that at least five other local mothers of adult children in the military had physical breakdowns.

“Half the time we cry together just because I understand and they understand me,” Daralyn said.

A half-dozen women attended the first meeting in a restaurant meeting room on a cloudy summer evening. They wiped tears between sips of coffee as they exchanged worries about their children.


Debi Hilts’ son is an infantry Marine who recently finished his second tour in Afghanistan.

“I see on the news ‘two more Marines killed’, but I don’t know if it’s my son because I don’t know where he’s at,” said Debi, 50, of Omak, Wash.

Her son David Abrahamse, 27, was seriously injured last December in a battle in which two of his comrades died.

She found out about it through a Facebook post written by her son’s girlfriend, she said as her voice cracked. “Thank God for Facebook,” Debi said while wiping her eyes.

She resents that parents aren’t always a priority to be notified when their children are hurt in the military.

That’s a common gripe among some military parents, said Shelley MacDermid, director of the Military Family Research Institute at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind.

“They are eager to know about what their children are experiencing,” she said. “They don’t understand the military system well and feel they don’t have easy access to learn about those systems.”

Social media has emerged to be a lifeline for mothers of those in the service. Women stay connected with one another and their children through Facebook.

Daralyn starts her days by checking her son’s Facebook page to stay updated on his activities in-between receiving phone calls from him.

Josh posts the details of his days that he is allowed to make public and he tries to call his mother at least once a week.

“You almost sit waiting for the phone to ring,” Daralyn said. “When the phone rings with call waiting everybody knows I’m taking it because it may be Josh.”

However, he feels guilty about being the source of her anxiety.

“I was kind of impressed that she started something like that,” Josh said in a telephone interview from Iraq. “I think it helps her and other mothers in the area. It makes me proud that my service gave her the motivation to start the Blue Star mothers. It makes me feel good that I mean that much to her.”

Debi used her Facebook page as her cyber support group, a digital diary, to express her angst and anxiety while her son was at war.

Her Facebook status updates sometimes disclose her somber thoughts from having “the sads” to thanking friends for supporting her through her “Marine mom meltdown recovery effort.”

The responses she’s gotten, including from mothers with children in the military, uplift her spirits and confirm that she is not alone, Debi said.

“There are so many of us that we didn’t even know it,” Debi said. “We’re just strong and quiet or at least we try to be.”

Georgia Nelson, whose sons Tim and Tom Nelson are in the military, said even if one of her children dies serving the country she’ll be comforted knowing they gave their life honorably.

“You know that if something happens to them they did what they wanted to do and they did their job,” said Georgia, who is also Holly’s mother-in-law.

And when soldiers are in danger their minds will always take them back to their mothers, Hoffman said.

“After all is said and done after all of that training when it comes down to it they are going to hear their mother’s voice,” she said. “It really doesn’t matter their age. That connection doesn’t go away.”