Marines' Helping Hands Missed

Times Staff Writer

On a recent sunny Sunday in the military town of Twentynine Palms, boys and girls trying out for baseball teams were knocking fly balls into the air, digging grounders out of the dirt and rounding the bases as parents and friends cheered from the sidelines.

Last year at this time, Michael Hill was a happy participant in this rite of spring, as a parent and volunteer umpire. But today, Hill, a chief warrant officer in the Marines, is on a desert base somewhere in the Middle East, preparing his battalion for possible war with Iraq.

"When he said he was going, I said, 'Oh no!' " said Cindy Daisy, president of the Twentynine Palms Little League, expressing concern for his welfare, but adding: "Now I have to find another head umpire."

As in most military communities, this town of 26,000 people next to the nation's largest Marine base relies on the Marines for its economic well-being. But the hours of volunteer work donated regularly by young Marines are nearly as important to the social well-being of this spot in the southern Mojave Desert.

Personnel from the Marine Air Ground Combat Center regularly make up more than half of the Little League coaches and umpires in Twentynine Palms. In the city's youth sports league, Marines routinely staff about a third of the coaching and officiating posts for soccer, basketball and volleyball. Last year, the Marines performed nearly 1,000 hours of work at a local interfaith program that assists the elderly and the disabled. They donated nearly 15% of the blood at the local blood banks.

One of the unintended consequences of the deployment to the Middle East is that program organizers are now scrambling to make up for the loss of the leathernecks. To replace the deployed Marines, organizers have called on civilians and those Marines who remain on base to step in. In the youth sports programs, organizers have recruited Marine spouses.

"You would be surprised how many wives have stepped in to fill in for their husbands," Daisy said.

So far, volunteer organizers say they have been able to fill most of the positions, although the replacements don't always have the experience or the gung-ho attitude of the Marines.

Randy Councell, director of the city's community services department, which runs the youth sports programs, said he has lost several energetic and high-spirited Marines who coached and practiced with the young athletes. "God, we miss them," he said.

Similar sentiments are being felt around the region.

In Ventura County, Habitat for Humanity is struggling to find skilled workers to replace the dozens of Navy Seabees who had helped pour the concrete foundations for an affordable-housing project before being deployed recently. Charitable groups near the Miramar Marine air station in San Diego and Camp Pendleton also report volunteer shortages.

The deployment from Camp Pendleton cost the Boys & Girls Club of Oceanside a handful of Marines who routinely helped coach and mentor children after school, said Club Director Ester Valles.

"It's kind of hard to replace them, because they were really dedicated," she said.

In Twentynine Palms, Marine spouses, civilian volunteers and the few Marines who remain on base have stepped up to fill in for the deployed troops. But some organizers fear the impact will grow if there is a war that drags on for months.

"We will very soon start to feel that crunch," said Debra Ahlers, a spokeswoman for the Community Blood Bank in nearby Rancho Mirage. She estimates that the deployment could mean a loss of nearly 1,500 of its annual 20,000 units of blood donations. The bank, which routinely holds blood drives on the base, recently launched an advertising campaign to recruit donors. The campaign's slogan: "Report for duty to fight the blood shortage."

Military officials decline to say how many troops have deployed from the Twentynine Palms base, which trains more than 50,000 Marines each year, or how many remain.

The Marines are not obligated to volunteer, but their commanders strongly encourage it. They are excused from some base assignments to donate their time in the community. And many work in local youth sports programs because they have children who play on a team.

Rick Jenkins, a chief warrant officer in the Marines, said he coaches Little League softball because his 11-year-old daughter is on a team, and because he feels it is important to teach children the value of team sports.

"Teaching children to play sports properly is a great feeling," he said after catching some fly balls during the girls' softball tryouts. Jenkins, like others on the base, said he could be deployed any day.

Last year, Daisy relied on nearly 30 Marines to help coach and officiate the league of 32 teams. About half of them have left, but Daisy said civilian parents have filled in. Since the deployment, some Marine wives have taken over the coaching duties of the 5-year-old T-ball players.

But Daisy said she has yet to find a replacement for Hill, a 16-year Marine veteran who last year served as head umpire for about eight baseball games a week. Hill also worked as a referee at seven games a week at the city's youth basketball program.

Hill's wife, Dawn, said her husband offers his time because he wants his own children, Zachary, 9, and Travis, 3, to "grow up in a good environment."

Last year, 87 Marines donated nearly 1,000 hours of work for Reach Out 29, a nonprofit interfaith volunteer program that helps senior citizens, the disabled and other underprivileged people in the Twentynine Palms area.

"The hours that the Marines do are backbreaking hours," said Sandy Fleck, executive director of the program.

Last month, Reach Out 29 sent four Marines to the home of Tommy Joe Meath, a disabled Vietnam veteran who lives in Twentynine Palms with his 82-year-old mother.

Within a few hours, the volunteer Marines had trimmed the oleander bushes next to Meath's driveway and installed a chain-link fence around his backyard.

Meath said the Marines were polite, efficient and hard-working, taking only 15 minutes for lunch.

"They did a fantastic job," he said. "If they were civilians, I'd [have] hired them."

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