When Arlene Murray attended her first meeting of the Tahoma chapter of Gold Star Wives of America, the group had no idea what it was getting into.
A force of nature capable of charm and velvet-gloved force, Murray soon became vice president of the local group of women whose husbands died while serving in the military. Then she became its president.
Her presence has never been a quiet one.
Murray, 58, had never attended a meeting before 2010, but now she’s taken the chapter where it had not been.
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“We support Honor Flights for veterans, the Joint Base Lewis McChord Santa’s Castle — we donated money specifically to buy gifts for teenagers — and to American Lake homeless veterans,” Murray said.
“We have buttons and pins honoring Vietnam veterans, and last year we pinned 6,800 of them on those I call our ‘forgotten veterans.’ ”
One of the things I loved about the organization is that we embrace women who remarry. Their memories never leave them, they just choose to go on with their life at some point.
The 94 women in the statewide chapter also support one another.
“A lot of our members are older — I’m one of the youngest — and when one goes to the hospital or is sick at home, they can feel forgotten,” Murray said. “We make sure they aren’t. We visit them, send cards and gifts.”
Next Saturday, the Gold Star Wives will join the local Gold Star Mothers — the group of women who lost children in service to their country — for a first-time Christmas-wreath-laying ceremony that’s open to the public.
Beginning at 9 a.m., the combined Gold Star groups, plus anyone else who wishes to participate, will place wreaths on the headstones of veterans at the Washington Soldiers Home Cemetery in Orting.
“We’re placing wreaths in 13 cemeteries across the state,” said Valerie Marks, with the Gold Star Mothers. “Orting is the only one in Pierce County, and it’s the only one where Gold Star Mothers and Gold Star Wives have teamed up.”
The wreaths are supplied by Wreaths Across America at a cost of $15 apiece. This first-year effort will place 80 of them in a cemetery with more than 2,200 headstones.
“Our chapter donated $250, but that’s going to the 2016 ceremony,” Murray said. “Any donations after November go toward next year. Our goal is to grow each year in the number of wreaths we can place.”
Wreaths Across America donates seven wreaths to each state, one for each of the five military services (Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, Coast Guard) and two in honor of POWs and MIAs.
For Marks, who became a Gold Star Mother in 2010, when her son Scott was killed in a Fort Benning, Georgia, shooting incident, the Orting ceremony will have special significance.
“Scott always knew he would be a soldier,” Marks said. “At 9, he was volunteering to help at the Old Soldiers Home, mostly just talking and listening to the veterans there.
“As a family, we’ve scrubbed headstones at the cemetery. It’s a beautiful place, but it’s fallen into disrepair. We have four Medal of Honor winners buried there, and each of them will get a wreath.”
Anyone who’s lost a spouse can join, and we try to make a difference. I’d like to think I make a difference.
Murray, a military brat whose father served in Vietnam, came to Tacoma in 1969 when her dad retired from Fort Lewis. She attended Foss and Lincoln high schools, then married a soldier at 18.
“I was 31 when my husband Andrew died. He was 34, on active duty, and we were stationed in San Antonio. It was a heart problem, and after they came and told me, it was like, ‘Now what?’ ” she said.
“I had to get a job, go back to school, start over alone. I qualified to join Gold Star Wives but had no idea what they did.”
Murray returned to school, became a paralegal and returned to the Northwest, where she looked up Dennis Murray, a high school sweetheart.
“Dennis and I dated for 17 years. We got married last September,” Arlene said.
The two live in a Graham menagerie that changes frequently. Not long ago, Dennis laid down the law on bringing in any more cats. He came home that same night to find two feral mother cats and their two kittens.
Yes, Arlene Murray is a force of nature at home, too.
What: Wreath-laying ceremony on the graves of American veterans
When: 9 a.m. Dec. 12
Where: 1301 Orting Kapowsin Hwy, Orting, WA 98360