Families need help while Guard in Iraq


MILFORD – With some 500 National Guard soldiers in southern New Hampshire shipping out for 18 months right after the holidays, a lot of area families are facing big changes.

Fortunately, a lot of people are ready to help them.

“I grew up a military brat and I know what it’s like to have a big support group on a (military) base, and here we don’t have that,” said Susan Drew of Milford.

Drew is helping an effort by the Milford Methodist Church to organize local businesses, organizations and residents to help families based at the Milford Armory – anything from baby-sitting to snow-blowing driveways to helping send care packages to soldiers after they arrive in Iraq.

Official channels are gearing up, too.

“The workload . . . already has increased,” said 2nd Lt. Ken Leedberg, New Hampshire Army and Air Force National Guard’s family program coordinator. “I’m getting lots of calls – people concerned about what to do to get ready.”

The uncertainty is understandable. The current deployment, including the Jan. 3-5 departure of the state’s artillery units based at the Milford and Nashua armories, is the biggest call-up that the New Hampshire National Guard has seen since World War II.

“All the years of (serving) one weekend a month, two weeks a year, is preparation for just this kind of activation. But it’s a challenge. No matter how much you prepare for the reality, it’s a challenge,” said Capt. Gregory Heilshorn, public affairs officer for the New Hampshire National Guard.

The Guard has long stepped in to help families when needed with such things as a family hotline.

“Those calls can be made 24-7. . . . They’ll say, ‘My water pipe broke in my house,’ and I say, ‘OK , where do you live’ and I work on getting quick help,” Leedberg said.

To do this, Leedberg is developing what he calls volunteer yellow pages – a database of “people who are volunteering services, such as a plumber who could be called in an emergency.”

Finding those volunteers is where efforts like that of Milford Methodist Church pay off.

“We cannot do it without the support of the community – local VFWs, local American Legions, local churches, businesses,” Leedberg said.

The need for a database that stretches throughout New Hampshire and over state borders shows one of the obstacles that National Guard families have to overcome: distance.

Guard units were once organized more on a geographic basis, so that soldiers at the Milford Armory were likely to come from the Souhegan Valley or nearby towns. Their children went to the same schools, they attended the same churches and it was easy to get together and build the informal networks that the Guard calls “family readiness groups.”

Now, however, an emphasis on military function means that units are more spread out. The Milford Armory, for example, includes soldiers from the Seacoast and from Maine, and one from Connecticut. Building family networks in those circumstances is hard.

“At this point, the family readiness groups are mainly just there to support the annual Christmas party or unit picnic,” Leedberg said. “They need to become an emotional support service and resource support service for families . . . and that’s quite a change.”