It may be the ultimate irony of the conflict with Iraq that to glimpse the difficult home lives of our soldiers, their spouses, and their children, America needs a foreign war. And even as those lives rise from obscurity, we have heard about the front-line fighters much more than the base-bound families, especially the youngest, many of whom are poor and do, on occasion, go hungry. Proof of their need is how high the compassion index shot up this spring in San Diego. A half-dozen outreach groups and food drives were organized, among them Operation Homefront and Navy Wives Food Locker, to assist families. Some groups, however, are always on watch.
One such is Military Outreach Ministries, sponsored by the county’s 33 Presbyterian churches and the Presbytery of San Diego. Begun in the early 1960s as Military Parish Visitors, the original band of volunteer women visited military bases, in times of war and peace, to ask wives about their needs. Today, the Ministries — its name now forms the acronymic MOM — runs biweekly food supplements and weekly bread drives to women and their children who are surviving on an enlisted man’s salary.
On the fourth Wednesday of every month one food ministry begins at Camp Elliott, a little-used storage wing of the Marine Corps Air Station Miramar, just east of I-15. There, a half-dozen long, low warehouses are stocked with pallets of goods for various military exchanges. One warehouse, its high cobwebbed rafters the seasoned wood of a half-century, is home to an acre’s worth of material collected by the Ministries, all aimed at young families — baby strollers, cribs, blankets, mattresses, stuffed animals, furniture, lamps, straight-back and cushy chairs, and more.
From the dock, Aline Bradley, one of the Ministries’ four team leaders, is handing me small boxes of still-cold veggie dogs, donated by Vons. It is late March, and war with Iraq has begun. I am putting the dogs in the trunk of a volunteer’s car. Soon these and other food items will be delivered in three vehicles to military families in Serra Mesa; four other vehicles are headed with the same bounty for El Cajon and Chula Vista.
Bradley is an animated woman of 36, whose tousled long black hair and French accent give her an exotic cast. When I acknowledge her accent, she replies, “Yes, I’m sorry, I’m from France,” an apology for her country, which has been thrown in the gutter by some Americans for not supporting the war. Her husband, a weapons officer, is aboard the Constellation in the Persian Gulf. Bustling through the warehouse, she shows me how overstuffed it is with household goods. “There’s too much,” she says. And then an idea pops out: “Wouldn’t it be great if we could find someone in San Diego who could ship the overflow to Iraq?” I stop, a bit incredulous. “To Iraq? Now?” “Yes, right now. Ship this stuff to the people in Basra. To show them that this is not just about war. It’s about helping people in need.” There it is — another irony. This war is not just about war. It is about fellowship, about a parallel world where civilians help civilians. Such is our heightened capacity to understand ourselves, despite being chastened or wrenched by fear during conflict.
Before us, eight vehicles sag from their loads; in big white letters, one trunk reads, “This Van Made Possible By Prayer.” The assembly of ten Navy volunteers (one father brought his son) and three Ministries’ coordinators (Bradley, Debe Finch, and the interim director, Sandy Bowen) pause to survey what we’ll be handing out. Squash, cauliflower, and lettuce, all organic; veggie dogs and veggie ground round (the advice about vegetarian meat is to tell the wives to cut it up and add it to pork ’n’ beans or just cover it with ketchup so the kids won’t know the difference); oranges and grapefruit (of the perishables, it is obvious the group is getting items that didn’t sell); Lemon Cake Mix and many plastic-wrapped flats of Gerber’s; two boxes from Feed the Children, a Christian food ministry in Oklahoma: one of toiletries, the other of brand-name foods, a bag of Froot Loops on top. (An accident on the interstate may have held up the bread truck from Solana Beach; it never shows.) The day outside is getting as hot as it is inside the warehouse; the cars, someone says, now look like “lowriders”; a loud fighter jet is ascending no more than a quarter-mile above us.
Sandy Bowen, the indefatigable leader who moves with the stiffness of one who lifts food boxes every day, announces that we are finished. “We need to pray.” She gathers us into a circle, has us hold hands, then asks “Our Father” for His blessings — on the volunteers, on the delivery drivers, on the families who will receive the food, on their husbands in combat. “Thank you, Father, for opening up the heavens. And Father, please bless the reporter who has helped us load these vehicles today to write a story that shows the integrity of our work and the needs of the families so that we can be fairly seen.” I find myself not so much praying as feeling blown away by Bowen’s statement: How indeed can military families, whose husbands are fighting in Iraq and whose food needs are being filled, in part, by “ministering” Christians — and not by the government — be fairly seen?
When our laden vehicles arrive at a parking lot next to the Cabrillo Heights Community Center in Serra Mesa, there’s already a line of 30 young women and children, some in strollers, a few running amuck. The line will grow twice as long during the hot afternoon, snake down the block to the Navy Exchange. For 50 years Cabrillo has been an off-base military housing complex for active-duty Navy personnel. Its 812 units are, section by section, being razed and rebuilt. While some units have already been torn down (residents have been moved to new units at the Village at NTC), hundreds of apartments are still occupied. The two-story blue-trim apartment dwellings are not unlike college dormitories where no-frills, close-quarters, keep-your-television-down is the rule of thumb.