ABOARD USS IWO JIMA, Arabian Gulf --
"Love in the mail" -- Part 1detailed how 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit Commanding Officer Col. Mark Desens stressed the importance of families supporting their deployed Marines and the importance of the 'Corps supporting families. Desens said both were essential to morale and mission. Petty Officer 1st Class Myesha Booker, religious program specialist with the MEU, called packages from home "a little bit of love in the mail," including those from organizations like Operation Gratitude, which reports to have sent nearly 400,000 packages to deployed troops.
In Part 2, 26th MEU Family Readiness Officer Kelly Cotton explains the importance of empowering families to thrive while their Marines are deployed. Booker and Cotton explain some of the ways Marines can stay in contact with families and other ways families and Marines can stay engaged.
Knowledge is Power
Preparing families for and supporting them through deployment is key to keeping Marines' minds on the missions at hand, according to Desens. The 26th MEU leads the Marine Corps into a new era, fielding a new plan designed to do just that.
The new Family Readiness Program features a full-time civilian coordinator, or Family Readiness Officer, and a slew of volunteer assistants. Together, they prepare families for deployment, organize events and offer news, advice and support to families left behind. Their experience and training help direct families to available resources. As the FRO for the MEU and wife of a Marine, Cotton knows firsthand how tough deployment can be on families.
"As spouses," said Cotton, "we must be aware of what causes us to feel like we are in the 'overload' mode, and head off getting to that place from the beginning. It is not an easy task for the remain-behind parent to be both Mom and Dad, and this is why it is vital to utilize the support systems that are in place."
"Knowledge is power," Cotton said, "and yet we find so many families without the knowledge and power of the resources that are available to them. … Plus, the family members get an opportunity to get linked for social interaction with others during the deployment. This may sound silly, but in reality, we find a lot of spouses who feel secluded once their Marine deploys. They no longer feel the easiness of connecting with others."
Booker agreed these programs help families adjust. She said her family benefits from events Cotton helps organize like 'Children in the Midst' and 'Kids in Deployment' workshops.
"We're talking about communicating," Booker explained. "You're communicating with the child who doesn't understand. All they know is Mommy or Daddy is gone. But things like 'Kids in the Midst' are specifically geared towards young children so they can feel special, so they can feel like they matter, make them feel important. Those things are very important."
Family events like October's Harvest Fest at Camp Lejuene, N.C., help to boost morale for deployed Marines and families. When MEU families gathered for the social event, they made a "we miss you" sheet filled with messages and children's handprints to send to their Marines. When it arrived a few weeks later, Booker arranged to hang it in the Iwo Jima mess deck, where the overwhelming majority of Marines and sailors could admire it during chow.
"Whenever I see those tiny little hands it's like a flashback to me," Booker said. "And when someone specifically like Lance Corporal (Bobby) Hoover, his wife, they're pregnant with their first child. His wife has her hand and a little message. I said, 'Hey, did you see that message?' and you should see the smile on his face. It's like being home again. It's like a little remembrance. It really does a big thing … It's like 'Wow, that's from home.'"
United Through Reading
Booker's job requires she not only deal with the separation from her own family, she must support the morale and religious programs for the entire MEU. One project she helps run is United Through Reading, in which Marines record themselves on video reading children's books, then mail the recordings home. Reading to and with children has long-lasting benefits to the child, according to United Through Reading literature.
"I use United through reading to stay connected with my kids," said Sgt. Curtis A. Long, an Explosive Ordnance Disposal technician with Combat Logistics Battalion-26, the Logistics Combat Element for the 26th MEU. "Being in EOD, I am gone a lot of the time even in between deployments. This way my daughters know that I still care about them. It helps keep that family bond," he said.
"I have noted that deployments have gotten harder on (my husband) since we have had kids," said Cotton, explaining that it's equally hard for the deploying Marine to 'let go' of his or her parental duties as it is for the remaining spouse to pick them up.
"There are some great resources out there that make it easier for the Marine to stay engaged," Cotton asserted, "especially with children -- United Through Reading is at the top of the list. Chaplains have great ideas for ways to stay connected as well. Writing and/or calling home is also a great benefit. I always think letters are the better option because letters are tangible and can be read over and over if needed."
Colonel Desens' wife, Linda, also does her part to ensure families endure deployment with as little pain as possible. She serves as advisor to Cotton and the Family Readiness Assistants and spearheads a project to ensure newborn children of Command Element Marines have a remembrance of their deployed parent. Called "Daddy Dolls," these soft, plush figures are made in the likeness of the deployed Marine and produced using a digital photograph of him.
"I've received very positive responses on them from the wives and some cute pics of babies with their daddy dolls," said Linda. "I usually stink at picking out gifts so I'm so happy that they like them!"
How to support deployed Marines
"Although the Marine keeps busy, he or she misses home!" Cotton explained “Home is the reminder of what he/she is working for. The best part about sending packages and letters is the creativity that families get to take part in -- everyday pictures from the everyday routine pasted to a small poster board for the Marine to hang on his rack, or funny cards that bring a smile or laughs, and most of all, those home-baked goodies that everyone loves to get! The point is, (mail) is a perfect way for the families and the Marines to stay engaged with each other during deployment."
"There are lots of long term resources and organizations that serve the military and are always looking for volunteers," asserted Cotton, "(like the) USO, American Red Cross, local churches and Operation Gratitude. These organizations are supported by volunteers, and make such a huge impact on Marines and sailors."
Easing the burden
While deployment may never be easy for Marines or their families, conditions are in place and constantly evolving to ease the burden on families. Many 26th MEU Marines agree that simple mail and care packages go a long way toward keeping morale high.
The Marine Corps initiated a new Family Readiness Program headed by dedicated civilians knowledgeable of the unique needs of deployed Marines' families. But ultimately, the value of these programs can only be measured through the people who operate and benefit from them. People like Cotton, Booker and the countless supportive families and anonymous civilian volunteers ensure 26th MEU Marines keep morale high and minds on the mission.