WHITE PLAINS, N.Y. — Everyone agrees that Ligaya Lagman is a Gold Star mother, part of the long line of mournful women whose sons or daughters gave their lives for their country.
Her 27-year-old son, Army Staff Sgt. Anthony Lagman, was killed last year in Afghanistan when his unit came under fire during a mission to drive out remnants of Taliban and al-Qaida forces.
But the largest organization of these women, the American Gold Star Mothers Inc., has rejected Lagman, a Filipino, for membership because — though a permanent resident and a taxpayer — she is not a U.S. citizen.
“There’s nothing we can do because that’s what our organization says: You have to be an American citizen,” national President Ann Herd said Thursday. “We can’t go changing the rules every time the wind blows.”
That explanation isn’t satisfying the war veterans who sponsored Lagman’s application, some other members of the mothers’ group or several members of Congress.
“It is disheartening that any mother of a soldier, sailor, airman or Marine who has died in the line of duty would be denied membership in an organization that honors the memory of fallen service men and women,” said Rep. Nita Lowey, whose district includes Lagman’s home in Yonkers.
Rule 'smacks of xenophobia'
Rep. Eliot Engel, who represents an adjoining district, said the group should change its rules immediately.
“Whatever the excuse, American Gold Star Mothers’ decision smacks of xenophobia and is in stark contrast to what Mrs. Lagman’s son fought and died for,” Engel said.
Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton said, “We now have many noncitizens serving honorably in our armed services, and I hope that this can be satisfactorily resolved.”
A past president of the mothers’ group, Dorothy Oxendine, of Farmingdale, said, “There’s no discrimination in a national cemetery. There’s no discrimination when they get killed side by side. So how can we discriminate against a mother?”
Another past president, Ann Wolcott, of York, Pa., said, “Times have changed since this organization was started, and there are a lot of men and women serving today whose parents are not citizens. I think they deserve every honor and privilege that we have as Gold Star mothers.”
Oxendine and Wolcott said they believe that given the increasing diversity of the armed forces there have been noncitizens in the 1,200-member organization who overlooked or ignored the citizenship question on the application.
Lagman has lived in the United States for more than 20 years. She was not at home Thursday, apparently tending to her husband, who is hospitalized. But her other son, Chris Lagman, said in Thursday’s The Journal News that all she wants “is recognition as the mother of this fallen soldier.”
Lagman’s application was initiated by Ben Spadaro, a veteran from Yonkers, who said he learned about the citizenship rules of the American Gold Star Mothers while working on a national cemetery committee of the Veterans Administration. When he learned of Anthony Lagman’s death and saw Lagman was a citizen but his mother was not, he thought, “He’s buried in a military cemetery, with full honors. She should be able to join.”
“We decided to tell the absolute truth on the application,” he said. “We put down, ‘I am not an American citizen.’ It was a ploy to get them to reject her, and then we said they should change the rules.”
But the organization’s 12-member executive board voted against any change.
'We don't change the rules'
“We can’t go changing the rules every time we turn around,” said Herd, the national president. “When we have problems within our organization with people not abiding by the rules, we just get it straightened out, we don’t change the rules.”
Oxendine, the former president, said she is sure the general membership would approve a rules change if the board did.
“I can’t believe that 12 intelligent women would ever not have it in their hearts to think about another Gold Star mother,” Oxendine said. “You pay a high price to join the American Gold Star Mothers. I figure her dues were paid.”
Spadaro isn’t giving up. He had his brother, a Florida lawyer, write to the Department of Justice, noting the mothers’ organization has received federal assistance and demanding an investigation.
And on Monday, during Memorial Day observances at Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 2285 in Eastchester, Lagman will be presented with a gold necklace bearing a simple gold star.
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