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Families of Deployed Marines Get a Lift

March 23, 2003|Hugo Martin | Times Staff Writer

Kids get free go-cart rides. Parents get a complimentary automotive checkup and a break on tango lessons. The entire family can get discount tickets to a local carnival and a demolition derby.

These are some of the perks merchants and the military in Twentynine Palms are offering the families of deployed Marines as a show of support and an incentive to keep spouses from abandoning this military town while their mates are overseas.

In 1991, when the United States last went to war in Iraq, thousands of troops were deployed from the nearby Marine base and hundreds of spouses retreated to the comfort of hometowns across the country, dealing a heavy economic blow to this tiny south Mojave Desert community.

So far, the new incentive program -- known as Operation Enduring Families -- and other efforts appear to have helped the city avoid a repeat of that experience. Merchants and Marine officials believe a vast majority of military spouses are sticking out the war in Twentynine Palms, though no one has exact numbers.

"It's not been the disaster that it could have been," said Dee Thompson, executive director of the Twentynine Palms Chamber of Commerce, which has teamed up with the base to sponsor the program.

In other military towns with similar programs, merchants also report that many families -- mostly wives and children -- are staying near the bases, saving the nearby communities from the economic drain that many firms expected after deployments overseas began in January.

Havelock, N.C. -- home to Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point -- created Project Care three months ago to give Marine families discounts, free vocational classes and other benefits.

"The idea was that we were going to provide so much support that the wives were going to stay," said Karen Lewis, executive director of the Havelock Chamber of Commerce. "And now the wives are staying."

In San Diego County, Marine Corps Air Station Miramar liked the idea of Operation Enduring Families so much that it launched its own version just a few weeks after its debut at Twentynine Palms in January.

Several Marine spouses at Twentynine Palms said the program has given them a sense of belonging and support that was largely missing during the last Middle East war.

"I intend to stay," said Sheri Hummer, wife of Col. Steven Hummer, who shipped out to the Middle East in January. "My Marine Corps family is here. My support system is here, and I am happy here."

Hummer has accepted discount movie tickets in town, and on the base she got a break in the cost of buying and sending items such as toothpaste and mouthwash to her husband. Families get "double coupon" days once a week when shopping at base convenience stores.

There is good reason for this military town to keep the families close. In peacetime, the Marine Air Ground Combat Center is home to more than 10,600 Marines. About 8,200 family members live on the base or in Twentynine Palms. Together, those groups represent nearly 70% of the city's population of 28,000.

Annually, the base pays out more than $321 million in military and civilian salaries, much of which is spent at nearby restaurants, supermarkets, theaters and auto shops.

"Without the base, we would not have an economy at all," said Phyllis Manno, owner of Virginian Cocktails, a bar in downtown Twentynine Palms.

There have been a few glitches with Operation Enduring Families. Thompson said some civilian Twentynine Palms residents have told merchants they resent not getting the discounts offered to Marine families.

But "it has created a much greater sense of welcome for the spouses," she said.

Greg Mendoza, owner of Superior Automotive in Twentynine Palms, offers Marine spouses free auto checkups. So far, he said, a few wives have taken him up on it.

"I wanted the military community to know the civilian community was here for them," he said. "When you go off to war, you don't want to have to worry about your family."

Amber Annan, who has stayed on the base with her 4-year-old daughter since her husband, Cpl. Kenneth Annan, shipped out in January, said she plans to avail herself of Operation Enduring Families. Her Ford Bronco is on the fritz, and she is going to take it to a mechanic who is participating in the program.

"It really brings the community together," she said.

Other businesses offer cheaper beauty supplies, or free income tax services. A dance company is giving discount tango lessons. The Morongo Basin Transit Authority has distributed about 75 bus passes in the last few weeks that halve the regular $3 bus fare.

Patricia Hanson, owner of Roadrunner Off-Road Rentals in nearby Joshua Tree, is giving the children of deployed Marines free go-cart rides to help distract them from the anxiety of the war. "It's good fun for the kids," she said.

Still, dance lessons and go-cart rides are not enough to keep some spouses in town.

Lisa Duncan married Cpl. John Duncan only two weeks before he left for the Middle East in January. She had thought about moving into one of the free housing units at the base, but decided she couldn't bear to stay without her husband. So, she moved in with her parents in Culver City.

"I thought it was going to be too depressing to be around," she said.

That was not the case for Duncan's friend, Theresa Perry-Houston, wife of Gunnery Sgt. Donald Houston, who also deployed in January.

She has several reasons to stay: She works as a nurse at a local hospital and has four children enrolled in school.

But, Perry-Houston said, the discounts and a family outreach program on the base have made life without her husband a bit more bearable.

"You can't take away the heartache, but you can make the families feel more connected," she said.

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