Fairfax forms support group for families of soldiers in war zones

By Kafia A. Hosh
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.

"I'm feeling explosive pride, terror . . ." she said. "I'm just looking for people to help me get through that."

Family members shared how they cope, how they often check the news for reports of attacks. They also discussed their worst fear: seeing a Crown Victoria with two military men inside parked on their street, ready to bear bad news.

Kathleen Culbertson, who grew up in a military family and served in the Army for 11 years, is the mother of an Air Force member in Afghanistan. Because of her son's security classification, Culbertson said she did not hear from him until three months after he deployed.

"Having that much knowledge made it worse. And then being completely in the dark," Culbertson said.

Sharp grew up as the daughter of a Vietnam veteran and eventually married a service member. Her son was initially put off by the military lifestyle, but he decided to enlist while struggling to choose a college major.

"He always said he would never join the military," Sharp said. "I was really shaken. We absolutely knew he was going to go somewhere [dangerous]."

Sharp turned to her mother for support.

"I didn't really know many people going through the same thing," she said.

A few spouses of deployed service members also attended the recent meeting, unsure of where to turn until they heard of Fairfax's program for parents, which welcomed them anyway.

Fawntrella Thompson is struggling to adjust to living without her husband, an Army specialist in Korea who has also served in Haiti and Iraq.

"It's been really tough not having a support system whatsoever," she said. "It's been a struggle. I'm just very grateful, very thankful for this."

Jacqueline Phillips, the wife of an Air Force colonel working at the U.S. Embassy in Algeria, said her family spent 20 years living on military bases, where they could relate to other families, but now it lives away from one.

"I'm lost for the first time in 20 years," she said, wiping away tears. "I am truly lost."

Soon after, Rhonda Luss, a bubbly grandmother whose 23-year-old son is stationed in the Azores with the Air Force, offered some comfort. Luss introduced herself to the group and smiled.

"Together, we can do this, guys," she said.

hoshk@washpost.com The next support group meeting will be at 7 p.m. March 3 at Brion's Grille, 10621 Braddock Rd. For more information, contact Tilly Blanding at 703-324-5252 or e-mail Tilly.Blanding@fairfaxcounty.gov.

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