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Teens help out on the domestic front

Junior ROTC students cut grass and babysit to relieve pressure on military spouses whose partners are a world away.

By SHANNON COLAVECCHIO-VAN SICKLER
© St. Petersburg Times
published April 18, 2003


VALRICO -- Marcus Miller is too young to join the Air Force, but armed with a lawn mower and a weed whacker, the Bloomingdale High freshman is supporting the efforts of U.S. military families in southeastern Hillsborough.

Miller, 15, and nearly a dozen of his classmates in Bloomingdale High's Junior ROTC program have "adopted" five lawns at the homes of soldiers deployed to the Middle East in recent months.

From now until the soldiers come home, the students will show up each week to cut grass, pull weeds and do any other yard work that needs to be done, said Lt. Col. John Wayne, head of Bloomingdale's JROTC program.

Depending how well his students juggle the first five lawns, Wayne might expand the service.

Students in Brandon High's Junior ROTC program also are gearing up to help; they plan to provide free babysitting and lawn work to military spouses, said Lt. Col. Guy Walsh.

"We really think this is a great idea," he said, "because we stress all the time the need to give back to the community."

For the students, many of whom plan to join the military or who come from military families, it is a way of helping the soldiers' spouses get through a difficult separation.

With their husbands and wives fighting overseas, spouses here become single parents or single homeowners struggling with the tasks they always left to their better half.

Miller said he "jumped" at the chance to take on a lawn, because he knows how difficult it is for his mother when his father, a major in the Air Force, is deployed for weeks or months at a time.

"When he's gone, my mom is scared because she doesn't know if he'll come back," said Miller, whose father was sent to the Middle East at the end of last year.

"I usually have to comfort her. By me doing this, I feel like I'm helping comfort somebody like my mom, just by taking a little bit of the burden off."

He and his classmate, sophomore Chris Tucci, are splitting yard work at the Valrico home of Deborah, whose husband, Jeff, left nearly two months ago for Saudi Arabia. (The Times is withholding the last names of military families for security reasons.)

Bloomingdale junior LaToyia King, 17, has two relatives in the military, and said mowing lawns is her way of supporting the war effort without actually going overseas.

"We can't fight over there because we're too young," she said. "But we can fight with a lawn mower. It's a small thing, but it helps."

Deborah found out about the students' outreach from the MacDill Family Resource Center in Brandon.

"I look at it as an absolute blessing," said resource center director Frank Suitor, who has referred about two dozen families to the JROTC students. "The fact is, there's a need here. If you have a contingent of military kids going to school here, they certainly know the difficulties of military life and are trying to help because they would want the same for their families."

Deborah, 36, and Jeff, 38, have been married for 17 years. He has been in the Air Force the entire time, so by now Deborah is fairly used to the separation of deployment.

"But the younger spouses especially can get overwhelmed, so it's so important to take advantage of support like this," she said. "You take for granted all the things your husband does around the house, and then he's gone. So I'm just thrilled the students are doing this."

Even though he had a report to finish for his JROTC class, Miller recently spent more than an hour after school mowing Deborah's lawn under the glare of an unforgiving sun.

"It's so hot out there, but I told him I'd have Girl Scout cookies and chips waiting for him inside," said Deborah.

She and Jeff have no children, "but if we did," she said with a smile, "I'd want one just like Marcus."

-- Shannon Colavecchio-Van Sickler can be reached at 661-2443 or svansickler@sptimes.com .

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