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Mentors fill in for parents serving active duty

Jeff Donn Associated Press

CAMP PENDLETON, Calif. – You rarely see Marines embrace.

Yet Lynne Gilstrap, principal at the Mary Fay Pendleton School at this Marine base, has seen it happen when troops return from Iraq and Afghanistan. They have every reason to let their emotions flow after missions that were protracted and sometimes scary.

But there’s more to it than that – they’re greeting surrogate dads who stepped in to guide their kids while they were gone.

“I’ve seen grown men actually … giving each other a bear hug,” the principal says.

On this Father’s Day, it should be noted that about 60 percent of military personnel – about 838,000 – are fathers, according to the Pentagon. More than 123,000 of these fathers are deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan. The lives of their children, says Nancy Campbell, who works in Army family services, “are turned upside down.”

Untold numbers of men and women – relatives, neighbors, other servicemen and women – have marched to the aid of these children as temporary mentors. They play softball and board games, help with homework, and try to ease childhood’s troubles with a sympathetic ear until the return of the deployed dads – or, sometimes, moms.

Some join programs like the one run by Big Brothers Big Sisters inside three public schools at Camp Pendleton, the city-sized base south of Los Angeles. Other mentors step forward informally to help brighten a dark time for a child.

“I got to have some time with somebody,” said Gage Black, a shivering 11-year-old wrapped in a towel after frolicking with other kids and their mentors at an end-of-school pool party at Camp Pendleton. “I’m not so lonely.”

His father, who was away in Iraq, has now returned – but expects to ship out again soon.

Gage’s mentor, Lt. Col. Sam Pelham, knows more than a little about comforting children: He is a father of three and, as a reservist, has worked in civilian life as an elementary school teacher. As mentor, Pelham would often ask the boy how his family was doing.

“If he was tight-lipped, I’d let him be tight-lipped,” said Pelham. “It was his hour, and I didn’t direct any of it. I was his running mate, basketball teammate, whatever he wanted.”

Mentors have visited Mary Fay Pendleton School once a week. Principal Gilstrap says she has seen striking changes in the children: “They were so excited … to tell the ‘bigs’ what they had done during the week that their whole attitude toward school and school work seemed to change.”

Samuel Ryan did his mentoring this week on a Camp Pendleton basketball court. Jackson Robinson, 12, grabbed a basketball from the hefty Marine, who looked like Shaquille O’Neal opposite the gangly boy. Jackson’s mother is in Iraq.

When Ryan looks at Jackson, he thinks of his own brother, now battling leukemia in Walton, Ky. “When I was being in the Marine Corps, I missed most of my little brother’s important times – 16th birthday, 18th birthday,” Ryan said. “So this is a chance for me to kind of make up for that and be there for somebody.”

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