USS PONCE -- Deployments are difficult for service members and spouses, but can be especially difficult for their children. Marines and sailors with 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit have an opportunity to alleviate that stress and connect with their families through reading.
The United Through Reading program offered aboard the ships of Kearsarge Amphibious Ready Group helps deployed parents provide invaluable personal contact with their children. The United Through Reading nonprofit organization, founded in 1989, provides Marines and sailors the opportunity to bond with their children by making a video of themselves reading children's books.
“Staying connected is one of the biggest challenges for deployed parents,” said Navy Lt. Jason Weatherwax, chaplain for Combat Logistics Battalion 26, 26th MEU. He explained that while spouses understand why their loved ones must deploy, they still need periodic contact. “Children, especially young ones, don’t understand even though they have those same needs.”
More than 1 million American children are separated from one or both of their parents due to military deployments, according to the organization's Web site. Through the program, members are video-recorded reading children’s book for up to 30 minutes. Members then receive a DVD, which they mail home.
“I read a story to my daughter, so that she will remember who I am,” said Sgt. Nikole Stradley, a radio operator with Service Company, CLB 26, and mother of a 9-month-old. “I want her to remember my face and not just my voice.”
Although not her first deployment, it is her and her husband’s first since becoming parents. Stradley explained that the allotted 30-minute period is plenty of time to read a couple books as well as create a personal message for her family.
“I enjoy making the video, because its time alone to speak to my family,” she said. “I also like it because it helps knowing that she knows me.”
Chaplain Weatherwax, who is also a parent, explained that he was not a true advocate of the program until his last deployment.
“I didn’t believe it was that beneficial, but seeing how my daughter would react to the videos, even after I got back, is when I realized that it was good,” Weatherwax said. “My daughter asks my wife to play it over and over again.”
He explained that his wife is the daughter of a sailor who made similar projects for his family.
“She vividly remembers her father’s voice from the books on tape as he would read to her,” he added. “I find it a very healthy tool for our service members, as a chaplain and as a parent.”
He explained that often service members disconnect themselves from the rest of the world and that is not always best when it comes to families.
“For good or bad we compartmentalize a lot in the military, but you can’t just put a child on a shelf for 7 months and then pick up where you left off when you get home,” he said.
Another CLB Marine is using the program to introduce himself to his child.
“My wife is due with our first child in November,” said Cpl. Thomas Crysler, a radio operator with Service Company, CLB 26. “I would like for our child to know who I am and not be starting from scratch when I get home.”
According to the organization's Web site, reading aloud to children not only strengthens the bond between families, it also helps prepare them for academic success.
“Research shows that reading aloud to children appears to be the single most important activity for building earliest emergent reading skills,” according to the Web site.
“At home I read to my daughter every other night. My wife and I alternate,” said Weatherwax. “This is one way I can still do that. We can stay more connected.”