Military families offer each other solace and support

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(Host) In several Vermont towns families with loved ones in the military have been joining forces to make it through anxious times. This week VPR’s Susan Keese looked in on a support group that meets once a week in Bennington’s First Baptist Church.

(Keese) The families of Bennington’s fighting forces drift into the comfortable church parlor alone or by twos and threes. They share the latest news over a coffee table spread with photographs of husbands and sons in military uniforms. Many of these people have lived in Bennington all their lives. But they’re only now becoming a community.

(Sound of conversation) “Kyle Nichols, he graduated in ’99. I was like, I knew those eyes, I knew that was him. You know Kyle? Where do you live? Bennington. I might have had him on my school bus….”

(Keese) Many of them look tired. Jennifer Margoupis, whose husband is a marine in the Mediterranean, is here with her friend Trish Raetz. Her husband is also a marine. He’s been gone since the fall and was scheduled to come home this week. But the war changed that. Raetz is pretty sure he’s in Baghdad now.

(Raetz) “He’s in an infantry battalion. He’s a radio technician, so he got sent in.”

(Keese) Raetz, who has three toddlers, talked to her husband this week. He couldn’t tell her where he was exactly. The relief she felt at hearing his voice was followed by renewed anxiety.

(Raetz) “It was depressing because now. It’s just real again, you know? It’s all right though. He’ll be home soon, I hope.”

(Keese) Bennington resident Joanne Harwood organized this weekly support group for people with family members in the war. Her son Ashley, a marine, just turned 21. He decided to join the service when he was a junior at Mount Anthony Union High School. Harwood says he picked the marines because they offered the best education:

(Harwood) “My husband and I have eight children together, and we told them, ‘if you want to go to college, you’ve got to do it on your own. We can’t afford to send you all to college.’ He wants to be a state police officer when he gets out.”

(Keese) Harwood says it’s been tough coping with the worry and the ups and downs of round the clock news coverage. So she put an ad in the papers inviting others in the same situation to get together. Twenty-three people came to the first meeting.

(Harwood) “It was just wonderful. We cried a little, we laughed a little, we thought of ways to do in Saddam Hussein ourselves.” (Harwood laughs.) “It was like a release for all of us.”

(Keese) This week’s turnout is about the same. Some families exult over recent images of statues of Saddam toppling in Iraq. Others exchange tips on where to buy yellow ribbon and “support the troops” tee-shirts. They’re planning vigils and raising funds for packages to the troops. One woman has a list of items in demand. She says baby wipes are in big demand. Another woman complains that her packages aren’t arriving.

“I get my first letter today and he says, ‘Mom can’t you send me a box? And I’ve probably sent ten.”

(Keese) A retired Marine officer explains that packages may be getting bumped by more urgent supplies. A specialist in stress management led a relaxation exercise. Carol Gilleran says it isn’t easy to stay focused when your mind is half a world away.

(Gilleran) “But just being around the group like this helps tremendous. To know other people are going through the same thing.”

(Keese) For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Susan Keese in Bennington.

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