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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.

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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.

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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:

• Rebuilding Together:

Minnesota First Lady's Military Family Care Initiative