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Grants help Guard families fill in the gaps
WASHINGTON -- For Army National Guard Maj. Matt Bacon's two young sons, this tour of duty in Iraq has been a lot tougher than the last.
"They are much more aware of what is going on in the world," Bacon wrote in an e-mail. "You just hope you have plenty of time to catch up when you get back home."
Extended deployments are just as tough on the family back at home as they are on the soldier far away, said Bacon, an engineer from Valley Park who was deployed in June and is expected home this summer. His earlier deployment in 2003-2004 was extended twice, lasting 14 months. Such separations can be particularly hard on National Guard and reserve families, who don't have the same resources and support as active-duty households.
That's why Bacon was grateful to learn last month that his sons Will, 10, and Jake, 9, received a grant to pay for their summer baseball league.
"Any diversion allows them to get their minds off how long their parent has been gone and gives them a positive activity," Bacon wrote.
The Bacons' $346 grant crossed the $1 million mark for Our Military Kids, a suburban Washington-based not-for-profit organization that provides similar stipends to pay for sports, arts and other enrichment programs for the children of National Guard and reserve troops deployed overseas.
Our Military Kids celebrated the milestone by flying the Bacon family to Washington for the Cherry Blossom Festival, a hockey game and a special Capitol Hill ceremony with Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and members of Congress.
Gail Kruzel, co-founder of Our Military Kids, is the widow of a Pentagon official killed on a peacekeeping trip to Bosnia in 1995. She said she helped start the group after hearing about stressed children trying to cope with separation and fear.
She recalled hearing of problems in Guard and reserve families forced to give up civilian paychecks for lower military salaries. Some had trouble keeping their children involved with sports and after-school programs.
"The active duty, they have a lot of support in place for those families on base," Kruzel said. "With Guard and reserve, those families are out in the community, so they don't have that same support system in place."
The program is funded by individual donors and corporate gifts from defense companies including Boeing, Lockheed Martin and General Dynamics.
Will and Jake Bacon said they miss having their dad around to coach football and play sports.
"He's usually there to keep track of the runs and how many hits they get," Jake said. "I don't get to play with him every day like I did when he was home."
Their mother, Christine Bacon, said her children don't talk much about their father's absence, but she knows they are affected.
"I can just tell," she said. "Bedtime is the hardest. They would always say prayers together, the four of us. So that's probably still the hardest time for them."
About 1,600 of Missouri's 11,000 National Guard troops are deployed overseas, most of them in Kosovo, with others in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Guardsmen typically serve 13- to 15-month deployments, said Capt. Jamie Melchert, a National Guard spokesman in Jefferson City.
Melchert said deployment times have stabilized since 2004, when many of Missouri's Guard units saw their tours extended as many as three times.
"The Missouri Guard was the most highly impacted at that time," Melchert said. "Since then we really haven't seen numerous units extending beyond that one year."
The Illinois National Guard has about 850 of its 13,200 troops actively deployed. An additional 3,000 are scheduled for deployment in late summer.
Bacon said her family is lucky to be relatively comfortable financially. With combat and hazard pay, Matt Bacon is among those who earn more on deployment than they do at home.
Still, the grant helps keep Will and Jake distracted from their dad's absence, Christine Bacon said.
"It's nice to see them thinking about something other than their dad being gone," she said. "I know it's always in the back of their minds, but I know it's good to give them something else to think about."
If Matt's unit stays on schedule, he will be home in late May or early June -- early enough to catch the last five or six of Will and Jake's baseball games. He'll even get to help coach.
"This is one of the hardest things to miss for a deployed soldier," Matt Bacon said. "Like most dads, my days of fancy-free sports dreams are long gone."