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Turning Grief Into Giving

by Doris D. Shadouh -

It’s an organization that no mother ever wants to join. Unbearable pain, tragic loss and heartache are all experiences that Mona Gunn ’74 and the other courageous women have had to endure, but it’s not the grief that bonds them; it’s the giving.

Gunn’s grief, tragedy and resiliency have set the stage for her to make history as she prepares in 2019 to become the first African-American president of American Gold Star Mothers Inc. The organization focuses on giving back to the country after the loss of a son or daughter in the military. For Gunn, it came the morning of October 12, 2000 after she received a phone call from her sister who saw something quite disturbing on the local news.

“She said ‘There’s been an attack,’” Gunn recalls from their conversation. At the time, Gunn was in her second year as the principal of Fairlawn Elementary School in Norfolk. She ran across the hall and turned on the television in the school’s media center to find out what was happening. No mother could ever be prepared for what she saw.

“There his ship was with a big 40-foot hole, and it said four sailors were killed,” says Gunn. “I kept saying he’s okay, he’s okay.”

Signalman Seaman Cherone Louis Gunn, her 22-year-old son, had just recently joined the Navy. He was on his first Med cruise aboard the USS Cole when they were attacked in Yemen’s Aden Harbor by two suicide bombers.

On that horrific day, 17 American sailors were killed and 39 others were injured in one of the deadliest attacks against a U.S. Naval vessel. Her son was among the fallen.

 It’s a day she will never forget.

“He was so excited to join the military and to follow his dad’s footsteps,” says Gunn whose late husband, Lou Gunn, proudly served 21 years in the Navy. He was also an NSU Alumnus ’97 and ’01

.Her son had only been in the Navy for nine months before his life was taken. After suffering this earth-shattering loss, Gunn somehow mustered up the strength to return to work. It wasn’t easy.

“I did what I had to do to get through my job, but it never leaves you. Losing a child puts a hole in your heart; a child whose life was cut way too short at age 22. It impacted my whole family,” says Gunn.

She says she received an outpouring of support from the military as well as the community. But all of the comforting words and prayers could not fix her broken heart.

“I was presented with a Gold Star Lapel pin and it meant absolutely nothing to me within the two weeks of the loss of my child. I wanted my child back,” admits Gunn.

“I had no idea what Gold Star meant.”At that time, she had no idea that the Gold Star would mean another life change for her—one that would allow her the chance to heal and to lead. Gunn said she first learned about the Gold Star Mothers organization when it was having an annual convention in 2004. She read the article about it and realized they had something in common.

“I said, ‘wow, I’m a Gold Star Mom,’” says Gunn.

She bonded with the other mothers and joined the organization, but that was just the beginning. Not only did she become a member, she has been working to expand their presence in Virginia.

In 2009, she connected with Gold Star Mothers in the Tidewater area, and together they chartered their own chapter. Another chapter was started in Richmond two years afterward.

“We are moms on a mission. We’re a powerful force,” says Gunn.

And over the years, she has been quite a force locally and on the national level. Gunn has traveled around the country with the organization to bond with other mothers, support veterans, active-duty members and their families.

The other Gold Star Mothers recognized her leadership abilities and elected her as their vice president. Next year, she will move into the top spot as the president. She will be the first African-American woman to hold that position.

On the local level, Gunn has been working on a special initiative to find Vietnam-era Veterans who served from 1955-1975. The Hampton Roads chapter has partnered with the Department of Defense’s 50th Commemoration of the Vietnam War.

“We’re being asked to properly thank those Vietnam Veterans because it was a very divisive war,” says Gunn.

Now she is working to fix that one hero at a time.

Once she is installed as the group’s new national president in June of 2019, she hopes to expand the organization even more to include other Gold Star Mothers who have not yet joined.

She has ambitions to include more members from other areas across the nation and more women of color.

Through every stage of her amazing journey, Gunn has never been one to shy away when called to lead; even in the face of one of the most horrific tragedies of her life, she has still found a way to lead others to a better future.

Now 18 years after her son’s death, she continues to honor his legacy by improving the lives of others.

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