Exploring the company we keep at UCI and beyond

Roller derby girls. God Without Religion. Harry Potter enthusiasts (fanatics?). These are a small sampling of the groups and organizations that have formed at the University of California, Irvine (UCI) and around Orange County. Members share a devotion to their cause and a desire to pursue it in collaboration with others, which are the subjects we examine in this blog.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Operation Help A Hero: Women and the Military

By Courtney Hunter

In the spotlight of a construction lamp sat a nervous marine in a plastic elementary school chair. He shakily rattled off his name and rank before beginning the familiar lines of “Do you like green eggs and ham?” to the camera. For this marine, the camera disappeared while he was reading the story. He would read the words, emphasize the rhyming scheme, and even pause to show the illustrations. His nervousness could only be detected by how quickly he read the story and when he would switch the words “fox” and “box.” Unlike most bedtime stories, when he was finished reading, his four year-old daughter was not sitting in bed ready to be tucked in and hear the routine words “sweet dreams,” while daddy turned off the lights. Instead, the book ended with an “I love you and I’ll be back soon.”

Operation Bedtime Stories is one of the many projects that Cindy Farnum’s organization takes on every year for deploying marines and their families. Cindy got the idea for Operation Bedtime Stories from the United through Reading program that allows service members to record book readings and send them back to the states while they are stationed overseas. She liked the idea, but wanted it to have a more immediate effect because after the marines deploy, it can be months before anything is received from overseas. Cindy described the feeling that Operation Bedtime Stories evokes: “[There is] something about knowing your husband did something special for you and your family during the hustle [and] bustle of pre-deployment craziness. [It] gives spouses warm fuzzies. Of course, they're thinking about the kids when they're gone and separated from them, but the package that comes immediately says, ‘I did this for you as a surprise, right when you thought I was too busy to care.’

Operation Help A Hero is a non-profit volunteer group that fundraises and organizes events like the one above. The mission statement asserts: “Operation Help A Hero is an organization that units and individuals can turn to in time of need. Our activities focus on supporting military family members as they endure deployments, reaching out to military children dealing with separation from a loved one, boosting the morale of military units overseas and preparing for deployment, and providing for military family members in need.” The organization’s volunteer support comes from Girl Scout troops in the surrounding Orange County area and St. John’s Episcopal School’s students and families who donate their time and resources to contribute to the cause. This volunteer group is a formal organization with a board of directors, bylaws, and a mission statement that provides the structure and focus that a young organization needs.

The board of directors consists of twenty female volunteers, four of whom are military wives, from the Southern Orange County area. These mothers, teachers, caretakers, and careerists come together once a month to discuss their upcoming project for that month. With projects ranging from Valentine’s Day parties, to barracks gift drive for returning marines, to Operation Bedtime Stories, these women are every family readiness officer’s dream.

The crisp morning of Thursday, February 18, offered me new experiences and new encounters stemming from a unique opportunity to volunteer for the CLB-5 Battalion that is deploying on March 25, 2010, for Afghanistan. I met the eight other volunteers after they had finished dropping off their kids at school across the street from Starbucks, our base before deploying to complete our mission at Camp Pendleton. Fifteen minutes after our meeting time, our commander scurried in in her high heels, and with her cheeks flushed from the overwhelming morning of getting her daughter, Kylie, to a babysitter, a mission in itself. With our volunteer shirts in her hand, she was prepared to give us our orders. Cindy Farnum, the founder of Operation Help A Hero, is the only one who has done this specific project before, so our inexperience had made us eager for her instruction. The only other things we all had in common were our bedazzled black shirts that read, in jewels, “USMC,” which stands for United States Marine Corporations and our Starbucks cups in hand. Once in uniform, we were en route to Del Mar, the wing of Camp Pendleton base where CLB-5 is stationed. CLB-5 stands for Combat Logistics Regiment- Battalion 5. They are the fed-ex guys of the marines. CLB-5 specializes in getting the equipment and supplies to ground-fighting troops. It is far from easy because the large hum-vees used to transport the supplies are evident targets for the enemy, subjecting them to many dangerous situations.

CLB-5 sits on the coast of Oceanside, where the sea breeze blows in from less than 500 feet away and makes you forget you are stationed on a base surrounded by barbed wire and monstrous field tanks. Within the barbed wire is one tall cement block building that houses two floors of offices and classrooms used for final training before the troops deploy. The volunteers and I stuck out like sore thumbs. Our congregation consisted of nine women in bejeweled t-shirts and jeans amidst young marine men and women in full uniform of camouflage pants and jackets, army boots, caps, and stern expressions.

When greeting a marine, I was either responded with the formality of a tip of their cap or a “good afternoon ma’am,” both gestures without a smile. During set-up for the project, it was evident who commanded control and respect from the marines: the actual military wives themselves. There were two wives on base that day, Cindy and Bernadette, the wife of the Commanding Officer for this regiment. Cindy was the commander of our assignment: the marines got the supplies out of the car for her and gave her their immediate attention during her description of what we were doing. Bernadette was the energy that sparked the room. She would walk down the hallway, reminiscent of a long school hallway with classrooms on each side, and strike up a conversation with almost every person that passed her. Bernadette made my transition into this new grave world comfortable with her boisterous voice and even larger smile.

In the past eight years, Bernadette’s husband has been deployed three times; the longest was when he spent over a year in South Korea. Through all those deployments and separations, military wives gain the strength to become more independent. “[After they deploy], you kind of act crazy and then you’re sad. [Eventually] you kind of get your groove on and then, they’re getting ready to come [back] home and you get kind of nutty again [because] you worry that he’s coming home but you are doing [things differently] now.” These marines’ lives revolve around transitions: transitioning back and forth between opposite lives at home and at war.

That final deployment period of transition was fully engaged that day. The hallway became my stomping ground for the seven hours I was there. It began at the entrance where I would meet a marine with a clipboard so he could write down his information, and the book he was reading for the video message. We would then walk, together, down the narrow hallway awkwardly conversing as two strangers, while being gawked at by every marine that passed by. At the end of the hallway, there was a bright entrance that led to the back of the building, outside, where there were three sheds arranged like portables on the blacktop of a playground. We had transformed the inside of one of the sheds into a filming studio. It was dimly lit with construction lights and furnished with an elementary school desk chair, set about twelve feet in front of a tripod with a video camera. Each marine would take their seat, consciously trying to hold back tears, while I gave them instructions. Most of the filmings were requested to be done in private, but I did get to witness two readings out of the sixty four that we recorded that day. During those recordings, the stern, focused marines transformed into affectionate fathers, brothers, and sons.

I later understood why the marines had passed by with sullen faces and swift paces while on base that day. After speaking with Bernadette, I got insight into what all these marines and their families were going through during the time I was there. She was able to inform me that the marines were experiencing a time of transition and had just returned back from range training at Twenty Nine Palms. Twenty Nine Palms is in the desert near Joshua Tree where there are marines specifically stationed there to do mock exercises that represent Afghanistan. Bernadette simply puts it: “It’s where you are basically playing war.”

The marines had just returned from Twenty Nine Palms after being there for over a month and were now in pre-deployment mode, where they were making final preparations and taking classes on base. Many of these men are nineteen years old with a wife and a baby, and are expected to have their lives in order after just having graduated high school a year ago. At home, they are signing wills and appointing powers of attorneys, with the underlying question of “what if I don’t come back?”

According to a study done by the Journal of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics last year, “a third of the children surveyed, with parents who are deployed in a war environment, are at ‘high risk’ for psychological problems” (Levine 1) . Many of these children are influenced by the stress that their remaining parent experiences from these deployments. Luckily, the study also showed that both military and religious support groups contribute to the alleviation of these problems. As a military wife, Cindy has ten years of experience with deployment, the role of a key volunteer, and being a military mom. Her experiences as a military wife help her understand and respond to the needs of spouses—needs that might otherwise go unmet. She realizes that these deployments have an effect on both parties, not just the spouses and children, but the marines themselves. “Having a daughter makes it harder on him and easier on me because when he deploys there is this little person to throw all my love at. It’s harder on him because he’s not just leaving one person now but two people behind.”

The day before Operation Bedtime Stories, one of the first sergeants approached the family readiness officer and strongly requested that she cancel the event, insisting that “we don’t have time. You need to reschedule these people.” The family readiness officer immediately contacted Bernadette with this proposal and was shut down. “Absolutely not. They don’t have time today, tomorrow, or three weeks from now. We are absolutely not cancelling the day before.” Bernadette understood the necessity of this event to the marines and their families, even if it could not be comprehended or accepted by those in command. Days later, after speaking to the family readiness officer, a paid employee by the Marines corporation who handles pre- and post-deployment briefings and preparations for marine families, she was able to testify for the Marines themselves, claiming that it would have been a mistake to cancel because of how many of the guys enjoyed it.

I guess, mothers know best.

Reporting Notes

-1 interview with the founder of the organization

-1 On-base interview with a member of the organization and a current military wife whose husband is deploying from CLB-5

-1 Interview with the family readiness officer of CLB-5

-3 hour observation of a board member meeting on January 28th

-7 hour event coverage of Operation Bedtime Stories on February 18th

-Operation Help A Hero’s Bylaws

-CLB-5’s Website: http://www.i-mef.usmc.mil/mlg/clr1/clb5/welcome_letter.asp

-CNN article on Marine deployment and the effects on families: http://www.cnn.com/2009/HEALTH/09/02/military.kids.stress/index.html

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