Military bases across the United States have mobilized, not just for war in Iraq, but also in support of the families of troops sent into battle. VOA's Michael Bowman visited Fort Benning, Georgia, home of the 3rd Brigade of the U.S. Army's 3rd Infantry Division, and has this report.
On a sunny Saturday afternoon, hundreds of family members of soldiers fighting in Iraq gather on an open field at Fort Benning. The air is full of laughter and the smell of hot dogs. While news from the Persian Gulf is mixed, here the overall mood is festive and light-hearted.
Some children play on an enormous carnival-style padded slide. Others have their faces painted - U.S. flags and the words "I love my dad" are popular choices.
A group of Vietnam War veterans lets kids sit on the seats of their Harley Davidson motorcycles. Elsewhere, a local church band strums out Christian-themed songs.
Four trucks have hauled in household goods donated by stores and by ordinary citizens for military families. Oversized posters bear words of encouragement from the public at large.
Rebecca Welch is a family advocate at Fort Benning whose job is to assist those facing challenges as a result of a loved ones' deployment. She says one of her most important tasks is to boost morale on the homefront of the war - hence, the fair.
"What we wanted to do is sponsor a fair for all the deployed family members, so that they could get together and know that the community is behind them, to provide them with what they need," she said. "Events like these that pull all the family members together are wonderful: upbeat and positive."
Shannon Beech cradles her 20-month-old daughter, Mariah. Her husband serves in the 3rd Infantry Brigade that was sent to Kuwait earlier this year, and was among the first to cross into Iraq when hostilities began.
"I believe he is somewhere outside of Baghdad, but I do not know that for sure," she said. "The last time I actually talked to him on the phone was two months ago, but I get letters from him every other day."
Shannon Beech says she appreciates the opportunity to relax and spend time with other military spouses.
"You see people you know, and that you do not always have contact with. And you ask them how their husbands are doing, how they are doing," she said. "It is good to see so many wives out here having a good time. It lets off a little bit of stress, I think."
Family advocate Rebecca Welch says the fair is just one example of what is being done to support military families during wartime. Her office also provides emergency loans and financial counseling. In addition, it has devised a program that allows homebound mothers to get out of the house and enjoy themselves.
"We have been doing a 'mom's night out' once a month. We open up the child care center at Fort Benning, and the moms get to go out, free from the children, and release some stress," Ms. Welch said. "Everything we are doing is [aimed at] supporting these moms, who are left behind to take care of the family and other tasks that normally the soldiers [husbands] would be helping them do."
Shannon Beech says she follows developments concerning Operation Iraqi Freedom, but resists the temptation to constantly tune in to newscasts. Rebecca Welch says it is important for military families to maintain some sense of normalcy during wartime.
"I do not recommend a person sitting in front of the television all the time," she said. "I would rather be busy, and that is what we tell family members - to keep as busy as you can with your regular routine, and do things with your children."
Rebecca Welch says that while the nation focuses on war and the sacrifices of the nation's troops, it should not be forgotten that military families also bear a burden, and are in need of support.