ABOARD USS KEARSARGE -- While some deployment stories focus on the separation anxiety that families go through as a son or daughter leaves the comforts of home, very few focus on what some family members do to relieve that anxiety.
Several mothers of Marines of the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit (Special Operations Capable) (24th MEU (SOC)) have discovered a Marine moms Internet chat room, or "Marine Moms Online" (MMO).
MMO has been in existence since Spring 1996, when a mom began to experience the worry and fear, along with the pride and devotion, of her son leaving home and joining the Marine Corps. Sonja's son, David, joined the Marine Corps in February 1996 and she desired to share pride and anxiety with others who understood her feelings.
After searching military websites for chat rooms and message boards, Sonja made contact with several other moms in Spring 1997. One e-mail or instant message led to another, and MMO officially debuted in July 1997.
The original mission of MMO was to provide support for the parents of Marines by offering encouragement and sharing experiences, as well as creating an outlet to air concerns. An increase in membership led to more creativity and innovative ideas. Now MMO writes to the Marine sons of group members, offers support to Marines who have little family support and sends letters to recruits in need of encouragement while in boot camp.
"I just knew how much we could all benefit from coming together," said Sonja as quoted on the MMO website. "We started with about seven moms that first month, and the rest is history, for which I take no credit. I just stand amazed at the talent and creativity, energy and enthusiasm, but especially the love and compassion I find among the MMO participants."
The 24th MEU (SOC) recently left the United States to begin its six-month deployment in the Mediterranean Sea, and a few of the 2,200 Marines aboard the Amphibious Ready Group ships have moms who are members of MMO.
MMO has been, and still is, somewhat of a lifeline for moms of Marines who have recently entered boot camp, or are on deployment. Additionally, MMO does not discriminate in its membership policy. It's open to dads, wives, girlfriends, fiancées, brothers, sisters, cousins, aunts, uncles and even active duty and retired Marines. The guest book even has a few messages from Navy personnel.
The 24th MEU (SOC) moms explain best what MMO is for them.
"I became a [Marine Mom Online] through my son," said Shari Shields, LCpl. David Shields' mom. "The support we give each other is great. Plus all the questions we have, have been answered either by a former Marine, or a long-time member who has been through it all and that just puts my mind at peace knowing that, as parents, we don't have to go through this separation by ourselves."
"In November 1999, my son left for Parris Island," explained Patricia Ashburn, LCpl. Joseph Ashburn's mom. "I saw an article in a magazine in January 2000 and logged on to the MMO website and became a member. What I found was a wealth of information and lots of caring people who could answer all my questions. These folks understood how I felt about my youngest of four children joining the Marines. I was feeling so proud of Joe, but very worried too. Now, I'm one of the "salty" moms who have lots of information to give."
"I sure wish MMO was around when my first Marine was in boot camp," said Carmen Houston, Sgt. Matthew Houston's mom. "If you get down or discouraged, the MMO is there to boost you up, and if your Marine gets down or discouraged, they're there for that too."
According to Carmen, Marine Moms Online now has about 1500 members and is prepared to deal with whatever tragedy may strike a family.
"The biggest issue we have right now is a mom in California whose son was killed last year, and now she has another son who's battling cancer," added Carmen.
"You wouldn't believe what the moms in California are doing for that family," she said.
"We share joys and sorrows, as well as e-mail hugs."
Marine Moms have grown so big that they have the ability to help whenever they're close enough to offer a hand.
"Lots of Marine Moms Online help Marines stationed in their areas," added Patricia. "We give rides to and from airports and base, deliver birthday surprises and more. Monetary compensation is never expected. All that is asked is that the recipient do a favor for another Marine when he or she can."
"I became a Marine Mom Online the day my son left for boot camp," said Lori Allen, LCpl. Ian Allen's mom. "Ian's recruiter told me about a website that has a schedule of what happens at boot camp and as I was perusing the Internet, I found a link to Marine Moms Online."
"This group has been just wonderful," added Lori. "When I was a new [Marine Mom], they helped me with all the acronyms Marines use and they shared stories about their sons and daughters that were similar to what I was going through with Ian. They gave advice on what to send to boot camp and specific information on graduation."
Darlene Bakos, LCpl. Adam Bakos' mom, is the mom who began the 24th MEU (SOC) Marine Moms Online "connection" when she phoned the MEU's Public Affairs office to get a mailing address for the ship. Ever since then, Marine Moms have been coming from all walks of life to share their stories, so that other moms may have solace.
For many of the mothers the separation anxiety begins immediately as their sons or daughters enter boot camp and it's quite similar to what their children are feeling.
"The effect of [MMO] in boot camp is great," exclaimed LCpl. Adam Bakos, Battalion Landing Team 2/8 (BLT 2/8), Infantryman, from Batavia, N.Y. "I was curious at first when I started receiving 12 letters a day, but it was nice to hear from people who care. I had so many letters I could fill up a laundry basket with them."
"Also, there are people that you meet and they let you stay in their homes," added Bakos. "I think the fact that they're Marines, or Marine affiliated, just brings us all closer together."
Sgt. Matthew Houston, Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron 266, Aviation Electrician, from Pensacola, Fla., joined the Marine Corps right out of high school and has grown to appreciate Marine Moms Online, because it wasn't around when he went through boot camp.
"It was hard my first couple of years," said Houston. "I had some pretty high phone bills, but now it's a lot easier with e-mail and Internet."
"I'm glad my mom is a part of MMO," he added. "I went home one time on leave and she told me about [MMO] and I thought it was a great thing for her. It's pretty cool how she finds out stuff faster than I do sometimes."
"They help each other out a lot. A Marine mom from California needed to get in touch with her son and he was stationed in Pensacola, but she didn't know where and my mom found him for her."
LCpl. Joseph Ashburn, Echo Battery 2/10, Fire Direction Controlman, from Baltimore, Md., echoes Houston.
"I like [Marine Moms Online] because I get a lot of information before anyone else does," said Ashburn. "I don't know how they do it, but the moms find out first."
"The letters in boot camp were very uplifting for me," added Ashburn. "I broke my leg in boot camp and didn't know it, so I would get down on myself sometimes because of the pain, but all those letters inspired me to dig deep and strive for my goal - to become a United States Marine."
"I was getting about 15 letters a night from all over the country," said LCpl. Ian Allen, BLT 2/8, 81mm Mortarman, from Des Moines, Iowa. "It's a great thing to have around. It's like a big support group."
LCpl. David Shields, Echo Battery 2/10, Cannoneer, from Sadler, Texas, explains how MMO is helpful to both Marines and their moms.
"It benefits Marines in boot camp when they feel like giving up," said Shields.
"Then they get all these letters, realize that someone cares and it's not that bad. For the most part though, MMO is for the mothers and I think it helps them the most because it eases their worries, and for my mom it lets her know what's going on."
As this article began to unfold during the 24th MEU (SOC)'s transit across the Atlantic Ocean, Marine Moms and sons of Marine Moms started to come from everywhere.
Here are a couple of Marine Moms stories of how they dealt with the separation of their sons.
"I sure wish I had known about MMO when my son was in boot camp," said Laurel, Sgt. Robert Brock Crist's mom. "I bumped across MMO when I was surfing on the web for Marine things that I could send my son, or get for him for when he got out."
Laurel found consolation from the stories of other moms and dads that were similar to hers and she grew to understand that the relationship between her and her son was not hindered, but it would be better. Robert accepted orders for embassy duty in Honduras and that increased the distance, but Laurel went to visit him. Things really changed when Robert got injured while in Honduras and Laurel had to turn to MMO for more help.
"[Robert] got a fractured back while in Honduras and was brought back into the States for another duty station," added Laurel. "He never went to another duty station, but was asked if he wanted out. He said 'NO.' He saw an opening for Presidential Commuter and asked if he could fill that position."
"The Marine Corps said okay and then put him through a series of flight physicals that could have paralyzed him. He turned up with four disks bulging after the physical and wanted to prove that he could do it."
"With prayers of Marine Moms Online and me sending those prayers, he made it. MMO gave him hope when he flunked the MRI and the X-Rays came back bad. The [Marine Corps] knew his determination and he got his job. The [Marine Corps] has made him spread his energy in a productive manner ..."
LCpl. Marc Zacharias, BLT 2/8, Fox Co., steams across the Atlantic Ocean with the 24th MEU (SOC) aboard the USS Carter Hall, and his mom wanted to share her experience with the MEU family.
"My son left for boot camp in August 1999," explains Colette. "Our family was on vacation, so I never even had a chance to hug him goodbye."
"The sight of his empty bedroom, the usual mess with his stuff strewn all over, made me cringe with loneliness. My son and I always had this special, close relationship that most moms share with their sons."
"I thought my heart was going to stop beating from the hole left in it," she added.
Colette started to think about all the horror stories that she'd heard about boot camp. She especially had a dislike for the Marine Corps and sleepless nights led to tortured days and started to affect her work. She didn't want Marc to be so far away, so something had to be done.
"Late at night, until the wee hours of the morning, the computer neophyte that I was, I started surfing the Internet. I looked for all the information I could find that would take me a step closer to my son."
She found a couple of websites that helped a little, but none were Marine Moms Online.
"One day I stumbled on the information that there was a website called "Marine Moms Online" that was dedicated to mothers, who like me, wanted to know what their son was doing and where they could find support from other moms."
"I'll never forget the feeling that made my heart beat faster when I realized that the voices of these Marine Moms echoed my feelings of loss and that they were grieving the absence of their son or daughter in the very same manner I was."
That was Colette's first day as a Marine Mom and she spent seven hours in cyberspace, from 8 p.m. to 3 a.m.
"Everyone welcomed me to the site," she said. "They told me what a wonderful decision my son had made and gave me strength and courage with every word I read. I felt elated ... I was NOT ALONE."
Now Colette is one of the proud moms of a 24th MEU (SOC) Marine and she has a whole new perception of the Marine Corps.
"Marc has thanked me many, many times for the [sometimes very significant] info I passed on to him, which was gathered of course, from the MMO site. He shares all of it with his friends."
She adds, "He has been called 'celebrity du jour' for all the wonderful letters and cards he has received for his 26th birthday. Now my Marine is gone on a six-month Med float with the 24th MEU (SOC) and I keep drawing the strength to cope with his absence from the MMO group. Their wisdom, spirit of generosity and dedication never cease to amaze me."
"God bless the MMO and all involved in it. You are my lifeline. Not a day goes by with out me reaching for the cyber-hand you extend to myself and other Marine Moms."
Writer's Note: Many thanks go out to the mothers of Marine Moms Online. A large part of this story would not have been possible if it weren't for their truly remarkable efforts via email. Of course, the rest of the credit goes to the sons of those moms - the sons that serve this country proudly at the "Tip of the Spear" - 24PROUD. Check out the MMO website at http://marinemomsonline.virtualave.net/.
Follow the 24th MEU (SOC) deployment on their website at www.usmc.mil/24meu.