With the war in Iraq looming in winter of 2003, two Falmouth women whose sons were on active duty wanted to get together and talk about their concerns and feelings. They put the word out to meet at the Gus Canty Community Center on March 24. The United States invaded Iraq on March 20. The war in Iraq officially ended eight years later. The Falmouth Military Support Group is still going strong.
"We needed a support group—we were panicky. We felt powerless," said Margaret A. Clarkson of Falmouth, who, with Carol A. Bagarella of North Falmouth, founded the group.
"There is a black cloud over your head when your sons and daughters are deployed," Ms. Clarkson said. Her son Craig Clarkson Jr., a major in the Marines, is presently stationed in North Carolina. He has been deployed to Liberia, Spain, twice to Iraq, and to Afghanistan. Ms. Bagarella's son Peter was a Marine corporal who was severely injured in Iraq in 2004 when he stepped on a landmine. He has recovered from those injuries and now lives in Florida.
"The group supports the families. It is a wonderful, loyal supportive group. Everyone still keeps their hand in. We might not always all go to the meetings, but as a need arises, we are there. And the community has been terrific," Ms. Clarkson said.
"We get new people all the time," said Carole Kenny, the group's president. "Ten years later, we're going stronger than ever." Her son Matthew, who is in the Air Force, was deployed in Iraq twice. He is now stationed in Georgia.
James P. McDevitt of Falmouth, who retired after 30 years in the Army and Army National Guard, was aware of the Falmouth Military Support Group, and always contributed when he saw the group fundraising around town. It wasn't until his son Brian went to Kabul, Afghanistan, as a Navy commander last year that he came to appreciate how "fantastic" Ms. Kenny is and the "unbelievable support" the group offers.
"I was talking to Crystal Knowlton, the Falmouth Veterans Agent assistant, and she suggested that I call the military support group when my son was deployed," said Mr. McDevitt. "I gave Carole Kenny my son's contact information and within weeks, he was getting care packages. I think he got one a week."
"When the soldiers in my son's group saw a package from Falmouth, they'd come over while he opened it. They loved the Cape Cod Potato Chips!"
His son is home now and has returned to his full-time job as a pilot for Delta Airlines.
Attended First Meeting 10 Years Ago
One parent who has been with the military support group from the start is Frances L. Dupuis of East Falmouth. She went to the first meeting of the group 10 years ago.
Her son Justin, a 1995 graduate of Falmouth High School, wanted to be a pilot from the age of 3. He was commissioned in the Air Force one day before his graduation from Norwich University in 1999. Currently in Vilseck, Germany, he is an F-16 fighter pilot, a major in the Air Force and assistant squad commander. He is going to Afghanistan in July, his third tour of duty.
"All through his deployment I always knew there was a group who understood what I was going through. Unless you're in this [having family in the military] you don't have a clue," Ms. Dupuis said.
"Carole is the driving force, the one who is always there and understands. She is the connection," Ms. Dupuis continued. "I don't have the time to go to the meetings but all I have to do is post a message on the Facebook page and she replies to me."
"When Justin was deployed and got a care package from FMSG, his peers would say, 'Oh wow, you got something from Falmouth.' They all shared the Slim Jims and other goodies. Justin was just blown away by the care packages."
Ms. Kenny said that the Falmouth soldiers will sometimes write to her to add a buddy who never gets any mail to the Falmouth group's care package list. She always does.
Ten years later, we're going stronger than ever.
For all the praise directed to her, Ms. Kenney is quick to stress that "Community support in Falmouth is unbelievable. If a returning vet has a problem with his house, for example, "I can e-mail the military support group and within 24 hours get $2,000 in donations."
Donations come in "all the time" to ship packages, she said. "It is expensive. At Christmas it is easy to spend $800 on just one shipment." She said the group continues to mail packages each month to soldiers, and that costs about $1,000 a month.
Over the years, she estimates that the military support group has mailed over 5,000 packages to more than 450 soldiers, and has given gift cards totaling $60,000 to returning service members.
Another activity that has been continued over the years, Ms. Kenny said, are the letter boxes throughout town that long-time volunteer Sharon Poulos maintains. "I hunt down addresses for the soldiers, mostly by word of mouth." She provides addressed envelopes in letter boxes at businesses like UPS in Falmouth and Mashpee, Stop & Shop in Falmouth and Mashpee, Roche Bros., Kenyons Market, Windfall Market and Waquoit Congregational Church and East Falmouth, Teaticket and Falmouth post offices.
"Then when they come home, we see if they can come to meeting. It's wonderful." Ms. Poulos is also in charge of the yellow ribbons that hang on the village green, the town hall and around town.
Soldiers Show Their Appreciation
Ms. Kenny has enjoyed watching schoolchildren help with the support group's efforts. She has had soldiers who have returned from their deployment come by to help Girl Scouts pack up cookies to send to the troops. "The look on the girls' faces is just wonderful," she said.
The group continues to have family support meetings on the second and fourth Mondays of each month at 7 PM at the Gus Canty Community Center.
Upcoming events for the Falmouth Military Support Group include building a handicapped ramp at Old Silver Beach in memory of Sgt. Matthew Gallagher of North Falmouth, who died in Iraq in 2011. "People gave donations in his memory, and we weren't sure what to do with them. Then Matt's mother said that Matt used to see a neighbor who was in a wheelchair who was unable to get down to the beach. She suggested that the money be used for that." The start date is scheduled to be the end of March. On May 6, Kevin Lambert of the Statewide Advocacy for Veterans' Empowerment will present a program, Battleminds, at the community center. It is designed to make the public aware of returning veterans and issues facing them upon their return.
Mr. McDevitt is impressed with the group's efforts to help returning veterans, especially the scholarship fund. Ms. Kenny said that the support group has given out more than $17,000 in scholarships in the last few years.
According to Ms. Kenny, 10 years ago, "we supported our loved ones while deployed and supported each other through their deployments, and now we still support them, still support each other, but now we also support the returning veterans and their families.
As similar groups have fallen apart in other towns, Ms. Kenny said, the Falmouth Military Support Group sometimes receives donations from those communities.
Ten years after its founding, Falmouth's group remains a major source of strength for soliders and their families. Tim Kotchian, who was in Iraq on his first tour of duty in 2003, and returned in 2005, said "I cannot say enough nice things about them. They are awesome." Ms. Dupuis said, "For Justin and for me to know that the community is thinking about him and his colleagues, and praying for them, it's wonderful. Incredible."