Fairfax forms support group for families of soldiers in war zones

Fawntrella Thompson, left, whose husband is an Army specialist in Korea, is comforted by Jeanie Torrey. "It's been a struggle. I'm just very grateful" for the Fairfax County-formed support group, Thompson said.
Fawntrella Thompson, left, whose husband is an Army specialist in Korea, is comforted by Jeanie Torrey. "It's been a struggle. I'm just very grateful" for the Fairfax County-formed support group, Thompson said. (For The Washington Post)

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Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 23, 2011; 10:07 PM

Until recently, Rose Polyak-ova's only ties to the military were a great-great-grandfather who had fought in the Civil War and an older brother who served in the Navy.

Now her family is coping with another loved one at war: Polyakova's 24-year-old son, Marcus, an Army first lieutenant who deployed to Afghanistan this month.

Looking for support, Polyakova, a bank manager from Silver Spring, did a Google search and found that Fairfax County was forming a group for parents and grandparents of deployed service members. Open to people from across the region, the group was launched with the help of three county employees: N. Tilly Blanding, Ann Sharp and Gail Ledford, who each have had a son serve in a war zone.

"Parents and grandparents sometimes just really don't know what's going on," said Sharp, whose son has deployed with the Army to Iraq and Afghanistan.

Fairfax researched other jurisdictions in the region but found that none provided a program that catered to parents and grandparents, said Evan Braff, a regional manager with the Department of Neighborhood and Community Services.

Often, spouses and children of deployed service members, especially those who live on military installations, are surrounded by people in similar situations. But for other family members, navigating an unfamiliar military system can be a challenge.

"I knew nothing about the military. It was a very, very lonely place," said Ledford, who was a single mother when her son served with the Marine Corps during the Persian Gulf War and in Somalia.

Polyakova, the daughter of a schoolteacher and an economist, also knew little about the armed forces - except that her great-great grandfather was a Union soldier. He lost an arm during a battle, and her family still keeps a rifle and an engraved cane that belonged to him.

"It was this legend, like: 'Okay, your people in the past [did] this,' " she said.

The support group introduced Polyakova to people she could identify with.

About two dozen of them gathered on a recent evening in a dimly lit Fairfax restaurant, eating pastries while sharing stories of deployed loved ones.

Polyakova, tall with cropped brown hair and smooth ivory skin, talked about her son, who was commissioned as an officer in 2009.


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