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Help reaches military families

The soldier across the sea rests easier knowing people here at home are watching out for his or her family," said Aubrey Huskey, who leads a California-based program that provides assistance to military families.

BY MARCIA DAVIS | SOLANA BEACH, Calif. | April 25, 2003

"With the sense of community we are building, it's like one big happy family."

—Aubrey Huskey

"The soldier across the sea rests easier knowing people here at home are watching out for his or her family," said Aubrey Huskey, who leads a California-based program that provides assistance to military families.

From food on the table, a bill paid for another month, a gift bag filled with the practical necessities and an occasional impractical indulgence, assistance from Huskey's group and others comes in many forms. For military families, that can mean a hand to clasp, or a tiny blanket that warms the heart as it wraps a child's toys.

Huskey started out adopting individual families, then troop division families. Then he expanded his work to include crew families of the entire U.S. Naval fleet based in San Diego some 30-35 ships.

And when his truck and big trailer were no longer large enough for the gift, food and personal care items he was collecting for families, he bought and rented an 18-wheeler and 10 trailers.

Huskey works closely with military chaplains to match the families most in need with food boxes and other assistance to meet their specific circumstances. He makes sure families get age-appropriate gift bags, and taps a plethora of business and corporate partners that provide aid items.

"The whole thing has just snowballed," he said. "With the sense of community we are building, it's like one big happy family."

"The families need to know someone cares and that they are not alone."

Up the coast in the South Puget Sound area, Sherrill Hendrick with Community Connection for Military Families (CCMF) looked beyond the obvious needs of the families from Fort Lewis army post and McChord Air Force Base to the needs she saw reflected in lonely eyes and on furrowed brows.

She set up weekly support groups with childcare for military spouses in several convenient locations "sanctuaries where they can come together with others who understand what they are feeling, have some time out from the responsibilities of the children, laugh and cry and know they are not alone," she said.

Hendrick acts as a liaison between the military families and the community, as a source of assistance information and referral.

"We don't duplicate anything that anyone else has. We make things happen on a larger scale, and large things have come out of that."

Huskey's and Hendrick's groups are two of 40 disaster and difficulty aid programs supported by Presbyterian Disaster Assistance (PDA).

Stan Hankins, PDA's associate for U.S. disaster response, described Huskey and Hankins as incredible ombudsmen.

Huskey recruits volunteers from the Solana Beach Presbyterian Church, and networks with food suppliers and military contacts to get donated or discounted food and personal care items to area military families.

Hankins said Fort Lewis area outreach began when troops were deployed to the Persian Gulf in 1991, and PDA began funding it in the aftermath of September 11, 2001, with the flux of military deployment to Afghanistan.

Huskey and Hendrick each draw on the decades they have spent working with military communities.

Huskey began his personal outreach to military families in 1965, at Elmendorf Air Force Base in Anchorage, Alaska.

When he moved to California in 1969, he said the first church he visited was almost all military families, and he set about helping them however he could, with transportation, financial assistance, food and supplies.

During the Persian Gulf War in 1991, he worked to assist a thousand or more families.

Today, his outreach has grown tenfold. A recent phone call Huskey received about helping families based at Camp LeJune, N.C., could mean reaching tens of thousands more.

"The great thing about this is that we are showing our appreciation by the help we do. The response we get in letters of thanks is unbelievable and keeps me going. And we have gotten together a huge network within the community of churches, residents, professionals, and non-deployed military personnel to help out. The sailors on the U.S.S. Elliott have been helping me out. They've not been deployed, and want to do something for the families of the troops who have been sent."

"I never served in the military, myself," he said. "So this has been my way to serve my country."

Hendrick grew up moving from military base to military base. Her dad served in the military from the time she was born until she graduated from high school. She says she understands the emotions of spouses and children, and works to ease their burdens, quell their stress and, through the time-out groups, provide a catalyst of friendship and support. Her background in social services helps her build programs to address the needs she understands so well.

Hendrick works with churches and military chaplains of all denominations, finding assistance for families from within the military and throughout the surrounding communities. Monthly, she hosts a networking breakfast for community and military professionals, clergy and lay leaders involved in serving military families.

Counseling adds another facet to the support system CCMF provides.

"We can be dealing with a 17-year-old bride or a 30-year-old military wife with children. A few of the spouses are husbands, but mostly they are women. The families of the junior enlisted are struggling to make ends meet. With 70 percent of the military wives working, they are away from home all day and most are not forming friendships in their neighborhoods that could provide needed emotional support. If housing on the base is not available, then families live in the community and are estranged from the other military families. Loneliness and isolation are big issues, and in times of war, the uncertainty about the whereabouts and the safety of their spouses and what the future holds is sometimes overwhelming."

A new doll blanket program to help children cope, Hendrick said, is gaining support. "Military kids are going through an awful time right now in terms of their emotions. The younger children are not able to ask a question or really understand what's going on around them, but they feel the stress. They're withdrawing, not eating or sleeping and acting out with tantrums. This behavior is only adding onto the stress of their mothers."

So, Hendrick said, volunteers are making doll blankets to give the children. "We're getting tags to sew in that say, 'Military Kids Blankets' and including a certificate saying that the gift is from someone who cares about them and that the children can use their blankets to keep their toys safe and warm, like their parent will be keeping them safe and warm."

Another developing program Hendrick is enthused about is a time-out support group for special needs families. "About 18 percent of our families have a disabled family member," Hendrick said. "Families with members who have physical or mental disabilities never get a break and they have tremendous caregiver burn out. When one of the caregivers has been deployed overseas, the pressure on the remaining adult is very stressful."

This developing program could open up four additional support groups for military spouses.

"Every waking moment of these parents' lives is spent in care giving. They are always working to assure that their kids are okay," she said. "Who is working to assure that they are?"

Huskey and Hendrick both said they hope other communities will develop heightened sensitivity and offer assistance responsive to the needs of military families. Hendrick posts a laundry list of suggestions on the MMCP Web site.

The Presbyterian Disaster Assistance Web site also features a list of pointers on extending outreach to military families.

Huskey and Hendrick refer to their work in terms of the biblical parable of the fishes and loaves. Both marvel at how the seeds of support, in peace and wartime, are serving so many military families in so many ways.

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Related Links:

Information about military family support on the Presbyterian Disaster Assistance Web site

Community Connection for Military Families Web Site

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