WASHINGTON—The children of North Carolina National Guard soldiers in Iraq gather one Saturday afternoon a month for story time at the armory in Lexington, where a local librarian reads to them.
Earlier this year, they and other residents scrawled their names on giant banners and sent them from the library to the troops in the Middle East. Anytime they like, the children can check out books with names such as "My Daddy is a Guardsman" or "Love Lizzie: Letter to a Military Mom."
Libraries don't always get involved in military family mentoring. Neither do school systems or doctor's offices or county parks departments.
But a program gaining traction in North Carolina and about to be developed nationally is trying to mobilize entire communities to help military families who don't always receive the support they need to deal with their loved ones' deployments.
The nation is relying more on the citizen soldiers in the Army and Air Force National Guard and the Army and Marine Corps Reserves. Nearly a fifth of the U.S. troops in Iraq and almost a quarter of those in Afghanistan are in the Guard or Reserve, and almost 120,000 part-time soldiers are now deployed to fight terrorism, battle forest fires or guard the border with Mexico.
Yet their families don't receive the same kind of military support as the families of active-duty soldiers and Marines who live on or near military bases do.
Such support typically ranges from child care and babysitting to financial and marital counseling to stores that sell low-priced groceries and other goods. At large bases there are special children's summer camps, parenting classes, medical clinics, lending libraries for furniture and camping equipment and emergency financial relief programs for such problems as car breakdowns or busted furnaces.
All can be critical for families struggling with far-away deployments of partners.
In Washington, Congress is poised to pledge $5 million in its defense appropriations bill to the Citizen-Soldier Support Program, a year-old project run out of the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill and aided by other universities in the UNC system.
Backers hope the appropriations bill passes Congress this month; the $5 million is included in both the House of Representatives and Senate versions.
For now, the program is a demonstration project, but supporters in the Defense Department want it to expand.
Rep. David Price, D-N.C., said the federal funding will encourage a new national center for citizen-soldier support.
"There isn't anything quite like it nationally," Price said.
Just recently, program director Jim Martin was in the Pentagon, meeting with military officials about training counselors in other states to work with new mothers whose partners are deployed.
"It's the emotional support and it's the practical support," Martin said. "Whenever one of these folks (is deployed), they have families, those lives are disrupted. Often it's other people in the community who can be helpful."
Martin said the Citizen-Soldier Support Program is different from existing Defense Department services in a few ways.
It serves families of National Guard troops, the part-time soldiers called up for natural disasters and specific deployments, and of reservists, who complement the active-duty military branches.
The program doesn't provide services directly. Instead, community liaisons contact local agencies about how they can serve the military families living in their midst.
"That's generally the first question out of their mouth: `What can we do to help?'" said Roman Bowles, a community liaison who covers 30 counties in central North Carolina.
"I say, `What can you do to help?'"
Then, he said, "they just go to town."
Agencies hold clothing drives, blood drives, fishing days for children. They sign banners and hold military appreciation days. County extension agents teach classes on parenting, communication skills and financial planning for families to use when one partner is deployed.
"Oftentimes, we forget about the issues the families are going through," Bowles said. "And a lot of them, it's the first time they've gone through this."
This month, the North Carolina Board of Education plans to send booklets from the Citizen-Soldier Support Program to every local school district superintendent, Martin said.
The packets include information on helping the children of National Guard and Reserve troops—the stresses pupils face, how to deal with a drop in grades or unusual behavior.
"We're bridges," Martin said. "We connect families and resources."
When Ruth Ann Copley, Davidson County library director in Lexington, learned that the 505th Engineering Battalion from the North Carolina National Guard was headed to Iraq earlier this year, her staff started working.
She bought about $1,000 worth of books for children and adults on the military experience. She hosted family readiness group meetings for partners at the library, offering babysitting and story time for the children in another room.
For the larger community, Copley's staff put together displays at all the library branches about what the Guard troops are doing.
"These are the people you see on the streets, at home, and they're out serving now," Copley said of Guard and Reserve troops. "You want to convey the fact that they are our friends and families."
The 505th is expected to come home in the next few weeks. One recent Saturday, librarian Mindy Faircloth and the parents and children were making "welcome home" posters.
Among them was 3-year-old Marianna Booth, whose father, Jason, was training at the armory. A single dad separated from his wife for a year, he said he often has trouble finding a baby sitter for Marianna while he drills with the Guard.
"They basically watched her, yeah," said Booth, a sergeant from Mocksville, N.C., who stumbled across the gathering. "I was stuck."
He loves the idea of getting communities more involved with the Guard and Reserve families.
"It'd be nice to see some more support on all sorts of different levels," Booth said. "I can't be the only person in this situation."
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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