SAVANNAH, Ga. – From the moment her teenage son mounted a foldout of an aircraft cockpit on his bedroom wall, she knew that he was poised to fly planes. Martha Coley, mother to two now retired Air Force pilots, recalled this, and similar aspirations-turned-accomplishments, arresting the discussion to misty-eyed silence.
Coley, an accountant in the Resource Management Division, shares related back stories with other Blue Star Mothers of America, a nonprofit organization that unites her with more than 6,000 women who gather to support their children who are, or have served, in the armed forces.
BSMA’s approximately 200 chapters across the United States join mothers, stepmothers, grandmothers and female legal guardians. These women collect donations, send care packages and letters to troops, and sponsor events to honor veterans and Gold Star Mothers of America, a sister organization for mothers who’ve lost sons and daughters in war.
Drawn in by the intimate quality of the shared motherhood experience, Coley lends her time and assets to support the group’s mission. She feels this intrinsic semblance of closeness rather than experience it, since she’s never lived near an active chapter, she said.
“The empathy offered by a group who relates to the everyday concerns and fears of a mother is indispensible,” she said. “There is an understanding between mothers of other service members.”
Though distance requires correspondent involvement in Blue Star programs, Coley finds direct ways to support similar military support programs, such as the district’s Family Readiness Network. An integral asset for many FRN programs, Coley regularly supplies greeting cards, serves meals, and volunteers in other capacities to support deployed personnel.
FRN coordinator Paula Hanna tracks Coley’s involvement with Blue Star as a way to spotlight similar military support programs and incorporate missions that may be compatible with FRN programs at the district. Hanna follows the trails of Coley and other volunteers to broaden resources for FRN, offer referrals and new avenues to volunteer.
"I try to open up the program to touch everybody who has a military or civilian deployment connection," said Hanna. "Everybody in the district is family readiness."
Coley embraced Hanna’s mantra years before her initiation as a Blue Star Mother or FRN volunteer. When her sons expressed interests in military careers as adolescents, she encouraged their ambitions as promising foresights of their futures, but she remained tethered to the rush of emotions a parent confronts, she said.
“It was a period of self discovery for me and my sons,” Coley said. “You hope you raise your children so they don’t need you. Let them find their own resources within themselves and just be there as a support factor.”
After ROTC stints at Clemson University (older) and the University of South Carolina in Columbia (younger), both commissioned in 1991 and 1993, respectively. The elder retired with 20 years of active-duty service while the younger retired with 21 years of combined active-duty and Air National Guard service, she said.
Throughout their careers, Coley sought out networks that gave her an opportunity to dissipate some of the concerns commonly felt by parents who have children serving or deployed to locations throughout the world.
“Whenever they were deployed I would send an oversupply of items in hopes that they would share some of the items with other deployed personnel,” she said.
As a Corps of Engineers employee in Millington, Tennessee, she began collecting and sending donations to the Corps’ Baghdad Division for hospitals, orphanages and schools in the area. When an opportunity for direct involvement arose, she deployed as a staff accountant in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom for six months, and found herself on the receiving end of the giving.
“I received boxes and boxes of baby clothes for the Gulf Region Central birthing center,” she said. “I got immense support from my sons, neighbors and coworkers while I was deployed.”
During her deployment she gave anonymously to uniformed members whom she spotted browsing the Post Exchange or area restaurants as a way to “pay it forward,” she said.
“I’d pay for Soldiers’ meals or gifts for their families,” she said. “Because somewhere, at some time, I would hope that [someone else’s] kind gesture, word or smile would encourage my sons and let them know that they’re appreciated.”
Recognizing needs and fulfilling those needs drives her insatiable generosity and she feels compelled to make meaningful contributions to the immediate military population. Coley is exploring interests to establish a local BSMA chapter, a move that could complement or overlap programs currently in place, she said.
“Family readiness and Blue Star have similar, if not parallel missions,” she said. “But can you really have too much support?”
That’s a question best left to the 48,331 veterans and service members who call the Savannah area home.
To learn more about the Blue Star Mothers of America, visit their website. District members may contact Paula Hanna at 912-652-5175 to learn more about the Family Readiness Network or find volunteer opportunities.