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With fathers at war, mentors fill role

CAMP PENDLETON, Calif. -- You rarely see Marines embrace.

Yet Lynne Gilstrap, principal at the Mary Fay Pendleton School at this Marine base, has seen it happen when troops return from Iraq and Afghanistan. They have every reason to let their emotions flow after missions that were protracted and sometimes scary.

But there's more to it than that -- they're greeting surrogate fathers who stepped in to guide their children while they were gone.

''I've seen grown men actually . . . giving each other a bear hug," the principal said.

On this Father's Day, it should be noted that more than a fifth of men on active military duty -- about 225,000 -- are fathers, according to the Pentagon. The lives of their children, said Nancy Campbell, who works in Army family services, ''are turned upside down."

Untold numbers of men and women -- relatives, neighbors, other servicemen and women -- have marched to the aid of these children as temporary mentors. They play softball and board games, help with homework, and try to ease childhood's troubles with a sympathetic ear until the return of the deployed fathers -- or, sometimes, mothers.

Some join programs like the one run by Big Brothers Big Sisters inside three public schools at Camp Pendleton, the city-sized base south of Los Angeles. Other mentors step forward informally to help brighten a dark time for a child.

''I got to have some time with somebody," said Gage Black, an 11-year-old who was wrapped in a towel after frolicking with other children and their mentors at an end-of-school pool party at Camp Pendleton. ''I'm not so lonely."

His father, who was away in Iraq, has returned -- but expects to ship out again soon.

Gage's mentor, Lieutenant Colonel Sam Pelham, knows more than a little about comforting children: He is a father of three and, as a reservist, has worked in civilian life as an elementary school teacher. As mentor, Pelham would often ask the boy how his family was doing.

''If he was tightlipped, I'd let him be tightlipped," said Pelham. ''It was his hour, and I didn't direct any of it. I was his running mate, basketball teammate, whatever he wanted."

Mentors have visited Mary Fay Pendleton School once a week. Principal Gilstrap said she has seen striking changes in the children: ''They were so excited . . . to tell the 'bigs' what they had done during the week, that their whole attitude toward school and schoolwork seemed to change."

Samuel Ryan did his mentoring this week on a Camp Pendleton basketball court. Jackson Robinson, 12, grabbed a basketball from the hefty Marine, who looked like Shaquille O'Neal opposite the gangly boy. Jackson's mother is in Iraq. When Ryan looks at Jackson, he thinks of his own brother, now battling leukemia in Walton, Ky. ''When I was in the Marine Corps, I missed most of my little brother's important times -- 16th birthday, 18th birthday," Ryan said. ''So this is a chance for me to kind of make up for that and be there for somebody."

In Martinsburg, W.Va., Marty Kilmer was there for Christa Carr in her moment of automotive need. More than anything else, Christa needed a hand tuning up her car for the soapbox derby while her father was deployed with the Air National Guard. Kilmer, a retired guardsman in nearby Inwood who has flown with her father, helped the girl adjust the car's wheels, tighten the cables, and get ready to race.

''My mom probably wouldn't have been able to do it," the 11-year-old girl said.

Then came race day. Kilmer was there, watching from the sidelines like a proud dad. Of course, he wasn't her father, but he found the right words anyway. ''I knew she wished her dad was there. I told her he was there in heart," Kilmer said.

The mentors don't just give. They get, too. ''Amanda, she's just so kindhearted and genuine; every time I visit her, she just lifts my spirits," her mentor said.

Some mentors mean to pay a debt of sorts to the deployed fathers. ''I just wanted to do something for the military, and I can't serve anymore, so I did this," said Rich Alan, 67, of Vista, Calif., a former seaman who has mentored two boys.

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