BROOKSVILLE — Stars that once fluttered from flagpoles flying the nation's red, white and blue are now going into the pockets of military men and women.
Four women from across Hernando County who have been providing goods from home and moral support to troops in Iraq and Afghanistan for several years have launched a new effort, called the Star Project.
From U.S. flags that have worn out their colors and fabric, the women and their friends are cutting from them the fields of blue, then scissoring off the embroidered stars.
Into a plastic bag goes a star and a wallet-sized card with a flag background explaining: "I am part of our American flag that has flown over a home in Florida. I can no longer fly. The sun and winds have caused me to become tattered and torn. Please carry me as a reminder that you are not forgotten."
Having received worn-out flags collected by VFW Post 10209, Spring Hill, and "everybody," Linda Kidwell said she's made up "thousands" of packets in the past year. She has packed them in some 1,200 Gifts from Home boxes, whose filling she has coordinated.
At the VFW she met a soldier recently returned from the Middle East.
"He said he carried (the star) all the time," she said. "Every time he opened his wallet he knew that people back home were thinking about him, that we were all there for him."
Kidwell broadened her outreach. "I always carry these stars with me," she said, for chance encounters with veterans.
At a recent Veterans Fair at Chocachatti Elementary School, where she staffed a station touting Gifts from Home, a Vietnam veteran was passing by her. Kidwell offered him a packet.
"This guy grabbed me and starting crying. He said, "You just don't know what this means to me.' It dawned on me that I wasn't there for Gifts from Home. I just started passing them out to all veterans."
Most appreciative, Kidwell noted, were Vietnam veterans who weren't welcomed home with enthusiasm or accolades. She knows whereof she speaks. Her husband, Larry Kidwell, served there. He is now disabled from his assignment on a riverboat bearing asbestos in its construction, and from post-traumatic stress syndrome.
"I feel very proud of Vietnam vets," she said.
Jan Zabel, family service representative for VFW Post 9236 in Hernando Beach, from whose members she is soliciting worn flags, is the local representative of Blue Star Mothers, women whose children are in the military.
Her son Kendal is a Black Hawk helicopter pilot in the Army. Her son Aaron is a Navy man just back from a stint in Afghanistan. Zabel's husband, Louis, served 20 years with the Air Force.
Dee Mills, whose son Lea died in Iraq in 2006 and who formed Lea's Prayers and Postage, is augmenting the effort both by providing postage and star-card preparations with neighborhood friends in Masaryktown.
"It's a community effort," she said, noting the project has raised some $100,000 in postage to send packages. "It's just a wonderful act of gratitude to our troops. We're getting one more patriotic use out of the red, white and blue."
Kidwell has forwarded a packet to Rep. Ginny Brown-Waite, R-Brooksville, who has promised to give it to Sen. John McCain.
Respect for the flag
Barbara (Newlin) Burke, who founded Treat the Troops locally, gathering friends to bake cookies for those stationed overseas, is in on the Star Project as well. Treat the Troops has shipped more than 70,800 home-baked cookies, cards and well wishes to date.
Burke emphasized that she tapped into Internet sites to learn how to properly dispose of U.S. flags and learned that the blue fields and stars may be cut away, the stripes returned to VFWs or Boy Scouts for ceremonial burning.
"I wanted to make sure we weren't defacing the flag," she said. "The flag will be treated with respect at all times."
Kidwell is treasuring a special donation, a flag carried over Memorial Bridge in Washington, D.C., in a parade that culminated at the Vietnam War Memorial.
"I need to find the right people to give (those stars) to," she said.
Beth Gray can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.