Parents Place answers cry for help from soldiers families

Rescue missions are the specialty of Moffett Field's 129th unit of the California Air National Guard.

But recently, families of the 850 servicemen attached to that South Bay wing put out their own call for help.

Answering that call, a pair of counselors from Palo Alto-based Parents Place offered two workshops and advice to a handful of families struggling with the real possibility that loved ones soon would be heading off to war.

"It's so difficult," said Karen Friedland-Brown, parent education coordinator at the nonsectarian counseling center run by the S.F.-based Jewish Family and Children's Services.

While some members of the unit are career officers, others "were signing up for what they thought would be a weekend a month and two weeks in the summer," she said. "And now here they are actually having to fight."

Last week, Friedland-Brown focused on parents, giving them suggestions for preparing their children should a father or mother be deployed. Some 200 members of the unit are currently stationed in Turkey.

"We talked a lot about the children," said Friedland-Brown. "How nobody had briefed these families on how important it is with young children to acknowledge and talk about Daddy being gone."

Friedland-Brown also discussed the loneliness of separation and the rocky emotions often associated with reunions.

After a separation of months, families get into new patterns, she said. "It isn't the exact picture it was when they left. Everyone needs a lot of support to ease that person back in."

Kay Ferguson of Palo Alto said her husband, Maj. Andy Ferguson, was deployed to Kuwait last fall and then sent to Turkey for three months. Andy Ferguson returned in early March. But Kay Ferguson said her husband, a navigator, could be sent out again as soon as late May, possibly to assist in rescues of downed pilots or troops in northern Iraq.

"This is not a usual thing for the 129th," she said. "I thought for me and for everybody it would be great for people to be able to do the best job with their kids when their spouse is deployed."

Ferguson, a former teacher who is now at home with two sons, ages 9 and 1, contacted Parents Place counselors about offering some support.

The result was last week's workshop and one on March 20 by Parents Place therapist Laurel Woodard that focused on grief and loss resulting from long-term separation. Altogether, about 20 people attended the two sessions.

"I work a lot with grief and depression," said Woodard, who previously worked at Moffett Field's Family Service Center. She said grief is a normal response to any loss, including the departure of a loved one on military action.

In her presentation, she outlined the progressive stages of grief, offered tips for coping and also described the warning signs of major depression.

In addition, Woodard discussed the effect of current anti-war protests on military families. "It's difficult for them," she said. "It's hard for them to separate support for the war [from] support for the soldiers."

Woodard's suggestion to the families was to avoid taking the protests personally.

"Many Americans are very divided about whether we should be at war," she said. But unlike sentiment surrounding the Vietnam War, "it seems like there's support for the actual troops."

While disappointed by a lower-than-expected turnout at the workshops, Ferguson hopes to take up where Parents Place left off. She would like to continue offering help, possibly establishing an ongoing support group for fellow military families. "The people who were there learned a lot," she said. "We have a big need."

"I'm not from a military family," said Ferguson, who grew up in Palo Alto. "I have come to meet and know a lot of these people. What I see is people who really put the team first."

Just two weeks after her husband's return from Turkey, he flew 1,100 miles out to sea on a rescue mission to pick up three seriously ill people aboard a Dutch cruise ship.

"These guys are really well-trained and really good at what they do," she said.

Coping with long separations is something new for most of the families, however.

When Ferguson's husband returned last month, his wife feared that their baby, who was then 10 months old, might not recognize his father's face. "I really thought he might cry," she said. But because the family had talked frequently on the phone during Ferguson's deployment, "I just think he heard that voice. He didn't cry at all."

For the sake of her returning husband, "I didn't want him to go through that."