Project Blessings reaches out to deployed National Guard troops

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FULLERTON, Calif. — Seven thousand California National Guard troops will be deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan this year, with 3,000 already there. Their families face the stress of separation, along with the anxiety that comes with a loved one being in harm's way.

For guard spouses it means double duty on the home front as they take on what used to be shared responsibilities. It is nothing new for military families during wartime, and in peacetime. But National Guard families often experience an added sense of isolation since their units do not reside in a shared community like regular military personnel, and are spread out over a wider geographical region. 

Southern California churches are heeding the call to support California National Guard families during this critical period. For the first time ever, faith-based groups are being allowed to take on a supporting role to provide hands, help and encouragement to families who want it. And it is all being done under the supervision of the National Guard.

On June 2 about 60 volunteers from the First Evangelical Free Church of Fullerton and Yorba Linda Friends Church attended a three-hour training session led by the National Guard Command, for Project Blessings—a ministry to California National Guard members and their families.

"What we hope it to be is a model of faith-based outreach to our communities of soldier citizens so it will be copied by others across the nation," said Bob Coker, organizer of Project Blessings. "We just have to make it work."

The church-led effort is neither a nonprofit nor an organization with a fancy Web site. It is a growing number of trained volunteers who give of their own time and personal resources to help and encourage family members of men and women serving in National Guard units deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan. They stand by the ready to direct families to the resources their local church already provides to members of the community. They also become a recognized communication link between National Guard units and the families of those serving.     

Coker said the key premise of the program is to help preserve the family unit.

"We don't want to see any more families broken apart," he said as he talked about the price paid by spouses, children, and parents when National Guard units are deployed to the war. Forced to lead separate lives, husbands and wives can easily grow apart as they try to cope on their own. When a service member returns home it can also be a stressful time. He or she can seem like a stranger to the family left behind, Coker said.


Optional program
Being on the receiving end of Project Blessings is optional. National Guard families can accept ofrdecline contact from the group. Volunteers are assigned to one family at a time.

"No family turns down prayer, or compassion and love and comfort," Coker psaid. He explained that the effort has come together over the past two years as churches and individuals have encountered soldiers and their families. He shared how two years ago Harvest Christian Fellowship in Riverside helped an injured soldier by providing Christmas gifts to the family of the wounded veteran.

"It is just a story of how by word of mouth people in various locations heard and wanted to help," he said of Project Blessings. 

Coker acknowledged that volunteers cannot openly evangelize.

"But what we can do is represent Christ," he said.  

Retired law enforcement officer Jim Riggs is helping coordinate Project Blessings efforts at the First Evangelical free Church of Fullerton. 

"We want the guys deployed to understand that there are people back here who are going to help their wives and family make it through the time they are gone," Riggs said. "We will be a resource base for the every-day things that come up—like when the washing machine breaks down."


Extended service times
He pointed out that National Guard members are typically called up for 90 days of stateside training before heading out for a 15-month tour in Iraq or Afghanistan. That means they are gone from home for l8 months.

"If they have a military occupational specialty that is needed they can be called up with just a 48-hour notice," Riggs said. "If they worry about their family it can be a distraction with dangerous consequences."

The former Marine said Project Blessings volunteers also plan to make venues available as gathering places for family members of deployed guard members. The unit Project Blessings volunteers will support is currently training in the Southeast and is scheduled to be deployed to Iraq sometime this month. When that happens, families who choose to participate will be connected with a Projects Blessings volunteer.

For more information about becoming a Project Blessings volunteer, call Linda Loughner at the First Evangelical Free Church at (714) 529-5544.