Volunteers Serve As Support For Marines' Parents

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The Marines provide an official network of support on base for the wives and families of Marines in combat, but the Marine Corps does not staff a support person for the parents. Volunteers fill in the gap. NPR has been following the 2/8 during its challenging deployment to southern Afghanistan.


We've been following the deployment of one battalion in Southern Afghanistan, the 2nd Battalion 8th Regiment. The unit of about 1,000 Marines has lost 12 of its men this summer. That includes one who was identified just this week. It's the news that no family wants to hear. And today, Catherine Welch of member station WHQR has this profile of a parent who volunteers to help comfort the mothers and fathers of fallen Marines.

CATHERINE WELCH: Jim Diepenbrock's(ph) son is a lance corporal in the battalion - a rifle man. A poster of his son's platoon hangs on the wall of his home office in Ohio. The 2/8 has had a tough time in Afghanistan. A few weeks ago, it lost four men in four days. Diepenbrock just can't bring himself to discuss how he feels about his own son, when there's been a casualty in the unit. But he's right there for the parents who call him after finding out they've lost a son.

Mr. JIM DIEPENBROCK: I think I listen more than I talk. It's just such a difficult time for them. The news is fresh in their mind. And, you know, we just start out with a simple, I'm so sorry, and we go from there.

WELCH: Where he goes is to the other parents whose sons are serving with the battalion in Afghanistan.

Mr. DIEPENBROCK: Most families didn't know each other before the middle of May.

WELCH: They're scattered all over the country.

Mr. DIEPENBROCK: We don't know what we look like. We talk to each other mostly on the message board. Sometimes we'll email each other. But we're a family.

WELCH: Diepenbrock says even the parents who lost a son want to know if they can still be a part of the parents' network. Absolutely, he tells them. And after consoling them, he gets on the message board to alert other parents that a Marine from the battalion has died in Afghanistan. And that's when the emails pile up, with inquiries from families who want to reach out.

Mr. DIEPENBROCK: A week ago, I sat in a motel room just hitting reply and sending the information out to each of the families for about three hours one evening.

WELCH: Hundreds of condolence cards for the family of the fallen pour in. There's one parent who sends every family a red, white and blue wreath. And when it's time, he and the other parents get in their cars and go to the funeral, even if it's hundreds of miles away. Members of the parents' network have been to every one. Diepenbrock's been to two. He usually needs to take a deep breath before stepping out of his car and heading into the funeral. Later, when the casket is taken from the funeral to the cemetery, locals turn out to honor the Marine. It always amazes him.

Mr. DIEPENBROCK: No matter where we go, there's just an outpouring. And there'll be signs, there'll be - yeah - excuse me. Just the outpouring of the local communities, there will be Boy Scout troops, people with signs, holding signs, just remembering the Marine.

WELCH: Diepenbrock remembers one funeral procession in rural Oklahoma, where people lined up along the 15-mile route to pay their respects.

Mr. DIEPENBROCK: We would drive past a family that had pulled off to the side of the road in their car. They had gotten out of the cars and, you know, they were holding their hand over their heart.

WELCH: Diepenbrock knew Afghanistan was going to be a tough deployment for both the Marines and their parents. When the battalion's commanding officer asked him to take on the role as parent advisor, he thought about it. Then realized that if the Marines can do their job, then he certainly can do this.

For NPR News, I'm Catherine Welch.

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