WASHINGTON – These days, Larry Jones' 18-wheelers are a welcome sight on military installations across the country.
Packed with food and clothing, this convoy rolls into towns bringing help to military families across the U.S. who have been stretched thin since the war in Iraq began.
"It’s not surprising, not really, with economic times the way they are," said Jones, the charismatic founder of Feed the Children, the non-profit organization running the Emergency Military Family Fund, which brings food, clothing and personal care items to families in need.
This is just one program among an army of private organizations standing at the ready to help military families, whether it be with social services, information regarding their loved ones, health care or financial assistance.
"All of a sudden, they are left in harms’ way," Jones said of families left behind when a service member is deployed overseas.
While the armed services provide a litany of services for full-time military members, things can get dicey for those living off base, and especially for the families of part-timers who have never dealt with a long-term deployment of a loved one before.
"I know there are a lot of people falling through the cracks," said Andrea Pixley of New Mexico, whose husband is a pilot for the Air Force and on call for a deployment to the Gulf.
Pixley runs 4MilitaryFamilies.com, a clearinghouse for links to military services for families. It also features a members’ bulletin board, which Pixley describes as a support group for over 300 girlfriends, boyfriends, fiancées, parents and spouses of servicemen.
"The military just doesn’t have the resources to help all of these people," she said
That's where groups like the Bluegrass Military Affairs Coalition come in, said Tom Baker, the group's chairman. Located within the orbit of three military installations in central Kentucky and Dayton, Ohio, Bluegrass serves military families, especially those living off the bases, by putting them in touch with nearby services providing everything from emotional support groups to medical resources.
"On base, you have support groups, family support services — the military takes care of its own. That’s fine if you live there," said Baker. "But what if you live a hundred miles away?"
Baker pointed out that many National Guard members and reservists are being called up for the first time, leaving their families unsure of where to turn for help.
"We're taking the good neighbor approach to help our military families."
And, he said, BMAC is gearing up for a campaign to assist low-income families in the potentially difficult months to come. "This may be a middle-class community where everything is going well, but then you hit that bump in the road and you need help," he said.
He also noted that the Red Cross has been paying the travel expenses for service men and women when an emergency calls them home. They’ve also been working with local groups to set up support systems and they have been putting loved ones in touch with service members overseas.
"We’re trying to reach out to the community-based members and their families. You can imagine our work has just skyrocketed," said Sue Richter, vice president of the Armed Forces Emergency Services at the American Red Cross.
In the month of March alone, Richter said the Red Cross put 20,000 families in touch with loved ones through an elaborate chain of communication usually sparked by a family illness or death, or in the best of cases, the birth of a child.
Meanwhile, the Emergency Military Family Fund, which operates on donations and cash contributions, is continuing to give away boxes of food, plus clothing and personal care items to families.
But Jones said his group doesn't want to suggest to families that they're charity cases. The group simply wants to lend a helping hand during these hard times.
"We are just supporting the families and in our small way, we’re thanking them for their sacrifices they’ve made," said Jones.