Following through on her Memorial Day weekend tradition, 87-year-old Georgie Krell of Florida made her rounds at the National Mall in Washington, D.C. The Gold Star Mothers pin, which she proudly wore as a past president of the organization for mothers who have lost a son or daughter in service to our nation, slipped off her lapel. What could have been a heartbreak for her became a rewarding challenge for an Arlington Heights teenager and created an uplifting bond for both of them.
Once Krell discovered her pin was gone, she figured it probably was headed for a pawnshop if found.
"I put a wreath on the World War II Memorial and I didn't realize it was gone until I was at the Vietnam Wall," recalls Krell of her pin, valued at $1,000. "It means more than that to me because it's my badge of honor, having worked so hard all these years."
On their class trip to the nation's capital, a group of eighth-graders from Thomas Middle School in Arlington Heights was leaving the World War II Memorial and searching for bus No. 129 when 14-year-old Rob Borland spotted the pin.
"It was faceup on the pavement," Rob says, noting that the pin was hard to miss but anyone picking it up might have faced an unwanted obligation on a day when people already were coping with crowds and confusion. "It was like, 'That's not my responsibility.'"
But Rob, a World War II buff who plays the historically accurate "War Thunder" computer game, picked it up. At first, he thought it might be a generic souvenir he could keep. Then he saw the gold star surrounded by the words "Past President, American Gold Star Mothers."
Turning it over, "I saw the initials G.C.K. and the years 2001-2002," Rob says.
He explained his find to tour guide Rhonda Canales, who was busy overseeing 50 eighth-graders on a day when every park ranger was swamped with tour groups.
"My son's in the military, and I knew what it meant," Canales says of the gold star. Formerly a teacher for 30 years, Canales quickly made a judgment about Rob and left the search for the pin's owner to him.
"I could tell his character immediately, and I thought it would be a wonderful teaching experience for him," Calanes says. It was.
"I looked it up on the Gold Star Mothers website and determined this pin probably belonged to Georgianna C. Krell, a past president," says Rob, who secured his find deep inside his backpack to protect it on the flight home. Busy with his schedule for Wednesday's Thomas graduation (where he was honored for maintaining a perfect 4.0 in three years of middle school), Rob handed off the assignment to his parents, Jack and Kim, and his mom contacted the Gold Star Mothers and eventually talked with Krell, president in 2001-02 and 2008-09, who insisted they call her "Georgie" as if she were an old friend.
"The president calls me Georgie," she says, noting that she met "with the two Bushes and Obama" during those years when she was part of the president's annual Memorial Day breakfast at the White House for the Gold Star Mothers leaders.
"Oh, goodness gracious, I have no idea," she says with a laugh when asked how many times she's been to the White House.
Krell says she was overwhelmed when she opened the package returning her pin. "I just sat here and cried," she says. "It gives me chills. It really does."
This story could have ended after the Borlands shipped her pin and Krell responded with a gift basket of goodies, a handwritten note, a book titled "Our Sons, Our Heroes," and an unexpected graduation gift. But "that little pin" spawned so much more, Kim Borland says.
Not only did Rob's investigation give him an insight into Krell's life of volunteering and advocating, but also it introduced Rob to her son, whose sacrifice set everything in motion.
"Bruce Wayne Carter," Rob says, launching into the story of how Krell's son earned the Medal of Honor, the military's highest honor. On Aug. 7, 1969, exactly three months after celebrating his 19th birthday, Carter was a Marine private first class serving as a radio operator with H Company, 2nd Battalion, 3rd Marine Division, in Vietnam's violent Quang Tri province.
"They got surrounded," Rob says.
Outnumbered by the enemy, Carter's unit was pinned down by the vicious crossfire when he jumped into full view of the North Vietnamese army to deliver a devastating counterattack. "The accuracy and aggressiveness of his attack caused several enemy casualties and forced the remainder of the soldiers to retreat from the immediate area," reads Carter's Medal of Honor citation. Shouting directions to the Marines following him, Carter led the way when an enemy grenade landed between two groups of Americans.
"To save the lives of his fellow soldiers, he threw himself on top of the grenade," Rob says, contemplating that act of heroism for a moment before noting, "Most people would jump away from a grenade."
In Florida, Georgie was preparing for her scheduled Aug. 13, 1969, wedding to Bruce Krell, who would be her husband until his death 47 years later, when officials arrived at her door to tell her that her only son had been killed in Vietnam. The grief-stricken mom canceled the wedding and opted for a simple ceremony with a justice of the peace, as she waited for her son's body to be returned. "He was buried on my birthday, Aug. 25," she says.
Krell, often joined at veteran events by her daughters Cheryle Nevins and Pamela Carter, still volunteers many hours each week at her local medical center, which was officially renamed the Bruce W. Carter Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Center. She sent Rob a medal from that facility featuring her son's likeness.
"I won't forget him and I won't let anybody else forget him," Krell says of her son.
"Yes, I'll remember this story," Rob says. "It's an honor."