Story by Katy McDowall
Photos by Brenna Middleton
It all started with cookies but in time, it became clear cookies weren’t quite enough.
When her son joined the U.S. Marine Corps in 2005, Mary Duty, co-owner of Poppa Rollo’s Pizza, joined his unit’s parent network. As her son, Caleb, served in Iraq, she communicated with other parents to organize school supply drives for Middle Eastern children and to bake cookies for troop care packages.
When Caleb returned to Iraq for a second tour in 2007, Duty became the founding president of the Heart of Texas chapter of Blue Star Mothers, a national nonprofit organization of mothers who have or have had children in the military. Duty continued baking and her young chapter began sending care packages to troops.
“They come home and that’s when the war starts,” Duty said. “That’s when you realize they’re not the same.”
For Duty, who has devoted her life to protecting children, Caleb’s decision to join the Marines was a “game-changer” that spurred her involvement in Blue Star Mothers. His return home in 2009 also brought change for Duty and the organization.
“Care packages are terribly important, but for those of us who were blessed to have our boys come home, we’ve got a new job,” Duty said. “Our job now is to make sure we keep those promises that we made. All those promises the politicians made need to be kept.”
Blue Star Mothers may have started with cookies, but its new focus is advocating for veterans. Fortunately, Duty is no stranger to activism.
After graduating from Baylor in 1972, Duty worked as administrative assistant to the executive director of the Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs in Washington, D.C., and legislative aide to Representative Les Aspin, D-Wis., before joining her husband, Roland, as co-owner of Poppa Rollo’s in 1975. Since then, she has been a devoted mother to Caleb and four other children who are all still involved in the family business.
Duty said her activism for the protection of children began in 1989 when her step son, Kevin, suffered a broken collar bone after being hit by a car as he was getting off of the school bus. According to police, the accident amounted to a $50 fine for the driver of the car but was not worth pursuing any further action. Duty believed it was worth much more.
After a call from her sister-in-law, Duty was convinced that joining the Parent-Teacher Association would help her change the law to result in harsher legal action for similar incidents.
“I was taken from being a young mother with small children to someone who was going back and forth to Austin and on the phone contacting congressmen,” Duty said. “Four years later we got a law that requires a $1,000 fine.”
Duty spent the next 10 years working as a PTA volunteer before she encountered her next game-changer. In 1997, she was diagnosed with Hepatitis C after a blood transfusion.
Told she could eventually develop liver cancer or liver failure, Duty endured 18 months of chemotherapy, still traveling between Waco and Austin working with the state Legislature.
During that time, she said God presented her with the idea of teaching school, a vocation she took on with her “bucket list” in mind. She began teaching in 1999 and has not looked back.
Today, she is an eighth-grade social studies teacher and chair of the social studies department at Tennyson Middle School. She also is on the board of contributors of the Waco Tribune-Herald and chairwoman of the Waco History Project, which works to connect people to Waco’s past.
Through Blue Star Mothers, Duty has worked with the students of Tennyson Middle School on the “Pencils for Peace” project, which Duty started with the parent network of Caleb’s unit. The project sends pencils, paper and other school supplies to the Middle East.
“Thomas Jefferson got it right,” Duty said. “You can’t have a democracy without an educated populace. You’ve got to be able to think, reason, discuss, debate and not worry about getting shot or taken in the night.Education is the fundamental piece that is going to lay the foundation for these nations.”
Last year, Blue Star Mothers sent thousands of pencils and reams of paper to the Middle East to facilitate educational needs. The supplies were given to Marine units for distribution as well as to an orphanage in Kabul, Afghanistan, with which Blue Star Mothers is partnered, Duty said.
The group continues to send care package to troops in Afghanistan, Iraq and other parts of the world.
Through donations and out of their own pockets, the mothers are able to send more than 150 packages twice a year, during the holidays and in the summer.
“As long as there are people serving in a hostile territory anywhere on this planet, there will be care packages,” Duty said. “Always.”
Since Caleb and other veterans have returned, the group has started including more than cookies in care packages.
“We came back and explained it’s 110 degrees in the desert and there’s no glass of milk for miles,” Caleb said. “No one wants a cookie.”
Items included in care packages include drink mixes and baby wipes, as well as food rich in protein, such as tuna and beef jerky. Units need the food because troop food deliveries, they will not. Sometimes this leaves troops without anything to eat, Duty said.
“To think that they went hungry in Iraq is unconscionable, absolutely unconscionable,” Duty said. “It’s sinful to think that our troops went without food because of the way we provide food to our soldiers, sailors and Marines in combat.”
“That’s the kind of stuff that makes you lie awake at night.”
Now that the Heart of Texas mothers have had children return home, as well as continuing to provide for those abroad, they are focusing on the Department of Veterans Affairs and how well health care is being provided to veterans, which is something that hits home for Duty.
Caleb returned home with some health issues, including impaired hearing and a broken ankle. He spent almost 10 months trying to get an appointment at the V.A., often only reaching automated phone messages.
The Blue Star Mothers hope to streamline the system to get veterans, including Caleb, the help they need from the V.A. faster for both their physical and emotional needs.
“You’ve got young people coming back with the injuries you can’t see, the ones in the heart and the mind,” Duty said.
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is common for returning veterans and is something Blue Star Mothers has been working to understand.
The group has worked on two studies with Dr. Jim Ellor, professor of social work at Baylor University, who studies PTSD and effective ways to help military families cope with deployment – before, during and after.
“The process of their coming back home and deciding whether they are going to live or die, whether they’re going to drink themselves to death, how they’re going to assimilate themselves back into society, a lot of it takes counseling,” Duty said. “They don’t just come home asking, ‘Where’s the Sunday school class where I can talk about this?’ or ‘Is there a pastor sensitive to this?’”
Duty said veterans can take years before they feel comfortable discussing their experiences. Blue Star Mothers, however, acts as an outlet for parents to understand what their children are experiencing by talking with other parents.
“Your child will never tell you ‘Mom, I did this’ and ‘Mom, I did that’ or ‘I was here’ and ‘I was there’ but you find out bit by bit, and piece by piece, by talking with other kids’ parents,” Duty said. “Then the process of healing begins.”
MaryEllen Maddox, secretary of Blue Star Mothers, has had four children serve in the military, including her son David, Caleb’s best friend. When David returned from his deployment with the Marines, Maddox said she called Duty and was able to get more information from her than she could from the military.
“It’s all about sharing what we know, how we feel and being a real crutch to lean on,” Maddox said. “If it hadn’t been for the other Blue Star moms and sharing my fears with them, it would have been incredibly more difficult.”
The Blue Star Mothers Heart of Texas Chapter now has more than 50 members in the Central Texas area committed to preparing care packages and helping heal returning veterans. How veterans are given the opportunity to put their military experience into perspective and the ability to lead a happy and fulfilled life outside of the military is crucial, Duty said.
“We’re like the military PTA,” Duty said. “We’re able to marshal people to call their senators, write the president, do whatever, to encourage to them to do the right things.”
Duty sees vocalizing the necessity of help for the veterans as an important way to accomplish things.
“We really have an obligation to do what is right for these kids, and if we don’t make noise it won’t get done,” Duty said.
For Caleb and David, Blue Star Mothers can make a difference.
“For vets coming home, there’s no organization to help veterans get the help they need,” David said. “No one sits you down and asks you what’s wrong with you. You’ve got to be suffering so long before someone helps you.”
David said if Blue Star Mothers can begin leading veterans in the right direction when they return home it would make a difference, especially when trying to navigate the V.A. Caleb agreed.
“It’s like trying to do your taxes on your own,” Caleb said. “It’s a nightmare.”
Duty believes if mothers choose not to act, then no one will.
“The only thing worse than a Marine is a Marine mom,” Duty said. “The few. The proud…”
“My mom,” Caleb interjected.