ST. LOUIS — Patricia Fry, whose son is a Marine infantryman, was explaining the fine art of creating a scrapbook to Rita Swift, whose son is a Marine helicopter pilot.
“I think the blue looks great because it brings out the blue in the flag,” Fry told Swift as she arranged a picture of her son, Maj. Mike Swift, on a page in her book.
The scrapbooks have a dual purpose: They keep parents busy during the anxious days of their son’s or daughter’s deployment to Iraq or Afghanistan. And, should the worst happen, the scrapbooks will be a memorial to a lost loved one.
“I’m looking for ways to stay busy, to make it easier,” said Swift, of Palos Heights, Ill. Her son has deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan and may return to Iraq once his tour as a test pilot is complete.
The scrapbook session was part of the second annual national convention of Marine Parents.com, a nonprofit, nonpolitical support group for parents of Marines, particularly those with a son or daughter in Iraq or Afghanistan.
For three days of seminars, which ended Sunday, several hundred parents gathered here to learn coping skills for themselves and strategies for helping their sons and daughters once they return home.
Parents learned about military benefits, psychological counseling for returning veterans, volunteer groups that send packages to deployed troops, the Purple Heart Society for service members who have been wounded, and more.
From across the country, the parents came looking for kinship. The military has programs to provide emotional support for the spouses and children of deployed troops, but parents are largely left on their own.
Most do not live near military bases. Their neighbors, even those who try to be sympathetic, do not really understand their strain and the fear. Or if they do, they can quickly tire of being supportive.
“My Marine son went three times to Iraq and my Army National Guard son went once,” said Jeannine Hubbell of Lathrop, Mo. “I’m looking for a connection to people who understand, who can relate.”
Like Hubbell, Kay Hale of Richardson, Texas, has a son in the 3rd Battalion, 7th Regiment based in Twentynine Palms, one of the Marine Corps’ most deployed battalions. “We’re 3/7 moms,” Hale said. “It’s not like Vietnam: We have a limited supply of bodies, and they’re using the same ones over and over again.”
Retired Navy Cmdr. Michael Colson, a chaplain who is now a counselor with the Seattle Vet Center, advised parents to give their returning sons and daughters a certain latitude because their language and behavior will have changed.
“Don’t ask them about their dreams,” Colson said. “Dreams in a combat environment are vivid and intense, and they don’t make any sense.”
Still, parents should be on the lookout for signs of reckless or dangerous behavior, he said, or signs of depression, which is common among combat veterans.
In a session devoted to the parents of Marines killed or wounded in combat, Cyd Deathe of Tampa, Fla., talked of her son, Lance Cpl. Adam Sardinas, who lost four buddies in a roadside bombing in Ramadi and later was injured himself.
“He doesn’t want to live without them,” said Deathe, tears filling her eyes. “He’s going through horrible survivor guilt and PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder]. I’m supposed to be able to take care of him because I’m his mom.”
Deathe was embraced by Georgette Frank of Elk Grove Village, Ill., whose son Phil was killed near Fallouja, and by Rich and Christine Dybevik of Coos Bay, Ore., whose son Gary Van Leuven was killed in Husaybah.
Frank led a prayer. Christine Dybevik talked of the helplessness felt by many mothers. “You hear your son is injured and the mom instinct kicks in: I’ve got to fix it,” she said. “But in these cases, you can’t fix it.”
MarineParents.com was started in 2003 by Tracy Della Vecchia of Columbia, Mo. What began as a diversion has become a full-time undertaking, with three staff members and dozens of volunteers. The website gets millions of hits a week.
“It just got huge,” said Della Vecchia. Her son, Cpl. Derrick Jensen, has made three tours to Iraq and just received a letter indicating that, as a reservist, he could make a fourth.
The group began as MarineMoms.us but switched names nine months later to encourage participation by dads. Still, mothers far outnumbered fathers at the convention.
Jackie Parker of Kingston, Mo., said she has endured four deployments to Iraq: one by her son in the Army, two by her son in the Marines, and one by a daughter-in-law in the Army.
“If it wasn’t for Marine Parents.com, I wouldn’t have made it through,” she said.
The website offers news, links to other support groups and projects, message boards, and chat rooms, many tailored to specific battalions.
Many of the mothers had been communicating on the chat rooms for months and felt like old friends even before they arrived here. “We have an online community but we’ve never really met before,” said Joni Dafflitto of St. Louis.
Fry’s scrapbook classes were filled with discussion of how to use different kinds of tape and stickers and how to do captions and where to buy the best supplies. But there was a serious undercurrent.
“It’s therapy,” said Fry, of Menomonee Falls, Wis. Her son, Lance Cpl. Erich Fry, will soon return to Iraq.
“Doing a scrapbook,” she said, “is like you’re with your kid, with your Marine.”