Military families missing organizations ready to help them

Families who have a member serving in Iraq or Afghanistan often need help around the house. Volunteers are often willing to provide the assistance. But it's hard for the two groups to connect.

By , Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor

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    Happy to help: GreenCare for Troops volunteers landscape (and play) for a military family.
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    Troops, Sears volunteers, and community members worked to rehab a soldier's home through Heroes at Home.
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Theresa Downing would love to hear her husband grumble about cutting the grass, but the Army reservist is in Iraq, so the lawn is entirely her responsibility, as are parenting, renovations, and bills.

But recently, Ms. Downing got help with her Lakeland, Fla., yard. Through GreenCare for Troops, she was paired with a landscaper who maintains her yard for free.

"GreenCare for Troops is a godsend," Downing says of the nonprofit program linking lawn-care volunteers with families of deployed troops. "It's the only service for military families I [have] utilized."

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Families of those serving in Afghanistan and Iraq often experience economic challenges, social isolation, and confusion over how to locate needed support.

"I don't know what's out there and where to look," she says. "It's truly a concern."

Meanwhile, many organizations providing home-maintenance help report that they're clamoring for military families to serve – and failing to find them.

The mismatch highlights how families can fall through the cracks when a spouse is deployed, and how service providers are becoming as focused on outreach as they are dedicated to helping.

The Red Cross estimates that some 3.9 million families have been affected by a deployment.

Even routine home repairs can seem impossible with a breadwinner deployed, says T.J. Cantwell of Rebuilding Together, a home-rehabilitation program for low-income owners. His organization partnered with Sears a year ago to found "Heroes at Home" for military homeowners. With some $4 million, they hope to fix 300 homes in 2009. Mr. Cantwell's main concern: finding families.

Household chores were a top source of spousal stress in a 1999 study of active-duty military families. Chores left incomplete due to time, money, or energy constraints can strain an entire family, notes Shelly MacDermid, director of the Military Family Research Institute at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind.

"Studies show that often children do as their caregivers do. If caregivers feel good and maintain structure, kids will do better. One of the main contributors is to give caregivers the feeling they are under control and managing," Dr. MacDermid says.

Volunteer services for the families also help troops, says John Hobot of the Minnesota National Guard: "Sometimes, we get a foot of snow in Minnesota. If my wife told me she can't get out of the driveway, I'm still thinking about it on my mission."

Mr. Hobot was deployed to Baghdad in 2005, and is now – through the Guard – affiliated with The First Lady's Military Family Care Initiative, a state program linking military families and organizations willing to shovel, mow, or repair pipes.

With both need and services abundant – GreenCare hopes to double the number of families it serves to 8,000 – matching military families with willing volunteers should be easy. But it hasn't been.

Downing was the first to enroll in her area, and it took GreenCare months to find Brooklyn, N.Y., landscaper Joe Castanzo a family that needed lawn care.

Sometimes, the reason families don't come forward to ask for help is that the spouse at home has become more independent and doesn't need assistance.

Others consider stoicism part of military life and won't ask for aid, Mr. Hobart says.

But often the problem is simply that families don't know there's help available to them.

Joe Moffat, executive director of services for armed forces with the Red Cross, explains that reservists and National Guard members became an "operating arm" of the armed forces during the first Gulf War (1990-91), creating a new population of active-duty families living off-base who "may not be familiar with Department of Defense systems and don't know how to access and get to them."

At one point during the current conflict, 50 percent of deployed troops were from the National Guard or reserves, he says.

The pay cuts these personnel experience when going from civilian life to full-time military service has caused the armed services to pay more attention to the needs of the families the service members left behind, he adds. Private groups have also jumped in to help.

This is new. During World War II, "not a lot of private organizations did that," Mr. Moffat says. "[But] just about everyone was involved [in the war] in one way or another so you had community support that way."

During the Vietnam War, he adds, "there was an assumption you got support from your family, and either you got it or you didn't."

Now with only 1 percent of the population involved in combat, Moffat says, volunteer service providers are forced to conduct more extensive outreach.

Some groups are trying to close the gap. The Red Cross is partnering with the Department of Defense, veterans' agencies, and others to identify service gaps and to find ways to be a presence "at the front end of a deployment," before a family member departs.

An important part of the Military Family Care Initiative of Minnesota first lady Mary Pawlenty is letting families know about the program's volunteers, who offer to do everything from washing windows and weeding gardens to chopping wood and cleaning gutters.

Ms. Pawlenty attends deployment ceremonies where – after giving what she calls a "five-minute advertisement" for the program – she hands out cards with the URL of the website. She stresses that services are just a click away.

"We try to communicate [that] the groups who signed up genuinely want to help, [that] you don't need to utilize their help right away, but if you need a little break and think it would be helpful if from Friday night through Sunday, meals could be handled by someone else, they're itching to help," she says.

Downing heard about GreenCare from another military wife and says it was just what she needed. Her strong personality often makes others think everything is fine, even when the opposite is true.

"You're trying to keep the laundry up, dinner on the table, and build a routine to keep things as stable as possible, and in the meantime, you're an emotional wreck," says Downing, who recently paid a late electric bill with her economic stimulus check from the federal government.

"I get a lot of, 'We really appreciate what you and your husband are doing.' But we're still there [in Iraq], and they still need to support families a lot more."

For more information

• GreenCare for Troops: www.projectevergreen.com/gcft

• Rebuilding Together: www.rebuildingtogether.org

Minnesota First Lady's Military Family Care Initiative

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