Gold Star Mothers have already paid

This buddy of mine who's in the Army out at Fort Bliss takes advantage of a program the Texas Department of Motor Vehicles offers for military types -- active duty, Texas National Guard, armed forces reserves and veterans -- to receive specialty license plates that support their branch of service and their service in that branch.

My buddy -- let's just call him "Bull" because he's got the personality of one -- had his pick of several plates for which he's qualified, including the Army and Operation Enduring Freedom.

He chose the Bronze Star plate.

Heaven knows he's earned the privilege, what with multiple trips courtesy of Uncle Sam to that sandbox known as Iraq.

But the meritorious service plates, unlike the military service plates, are free, as in no registration fee along with no specialty plate fee.

"I think that's a good reason to avoid fees and since the state apparently agrees, it's a win-win," Bull said in a recent e-mail exchange.

And that's as it should be in a state that values the men and women who answered their inner call to duty with an outward willingness to sacrifice so much on behalf of their country.

Now, Bull's got this buddy serving with him at Bliss who was admiring those Bronze Star plates but lamenting that he had only earned a Purple Heart, not anything higher.

Bull told his pal (in error, as it turns out) that the PH was a qualifying plate as well.

"He took a bullet after all," Bull wrote.

If e-mail could growl, that one would have.

Unfortunately, Bull's wounded buddy later came to his desk and said that the PH plate was $3. Not free, but still a good deal.

The plates classified as recognition awards are the Purple Heart, disabled veteran, former POW and Pearl Harbor survivor. The state waives the registration fees for qualified residents. They pay $3 for the first set of plates. If they want an additional set, the regular registration fee for that vehicle type will apply.

Since 2003, the Texas Legislature has added specialty plates to recognize military service. From veterans of World War II, Korea and Vietnam to those who served in Desert Shield, Desert Storm, Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom, members of every branch of the military (except for retired merchant mariners, oddly enough) can receive plates that honor their service. They do have to pay the applicable registration fee for their vehicle.

But it was the "other" plate category that sent Bull raging after a visit to the DMV website, and not because the people who qualify don't deserve the recognition.

Gold Star Mothers have to pay a $10 specialty plate fee plus the regular vehicle registration.

Mothers of servicemen and women who have been killed began calling themselves "Gold Star Mothers" during the first World War, when houses displayed service flags with a blue star for every family member serving in the armed forces. When the unthinkable happened, a gold star was placed over the blue one.

Anyone who's watched Saving Private Ryan has witnessed a dramatic representation of a mother's grief. The brief scene featuring Ryan's mother getting the bad news about three of her boys is engraved on your mind and your heart after she crumbles to the porch in front of a minister and a War Department messenger.

Most returning veterans don't talk about their combat experiences with civilians. My father, an Air Force pilot who was MIA in September 1944 after his shot-up Super Fortress hit a violent windstorm and went down in China, never did. "Civilians couldn't stand to know the incidents and losses we suffered," he told my grandmother, who recounted the statement in her journal.

Filmmaker Steven Spielberg did for thousands of veterans what they could never do for themselves -- tell the civilian world what every grieving Gold Star mother knows of the realities and horrors of war.

Bull is right to rage.

Jill "J.R." Labbe is editorial director of the Star-Telegram.

817-390-7599 Twitter: @jrlabbe55