Child's Play Has Serious Theme

Times Staff Writer

The plot was simple: A young boy named True felt he had lost his identity. He was taking a journey with his dog, Steadfast, to figure out who he was.

Along the way, he met a girl who often cried because she missed her departed father, and a boy who acted out his anxieties by fighting with other children.

The 40 or so kindergartners who watched the show Wednesday at Condor Elementary School on the Marine base in Twentynine Palms may have missed the metaphor. The children, sitting on benches in the school cafeteria, laughed, clapped and sang along with the puppets at the end of the show.

But for counselors on the Marine base, the performance was part of a serious effort to help the children of deployed Marines cope with stress related to the war in Iraq and the danger it poses to their parents in the Middle East.

The show, "Steadfast and True," produced by the Family Advocacy Center, represents the first time Marine counselors ventured into public schools to offer psychological help to military children struggling with emotional trauma related to Iraq. Marine officials plan to take the show to several other schools in the Twentynine Palms area over the next few weeks.

The Marine Corps Air-Ground Combat Center in Twentynine Palms, the nation's largest Marine base, is home to nearly 11,000 Marines in peacetime. An additional 8,000 spouses and children live on or near the base in the south Mojave Desert. Condor Elementary is a public school on the base and serves most of the Marine families.

Since the base began deploying thousands of Marines in January, counselors say they have seen a rise in the number of wives and children coming to the Family Advocacy Center for help.

"We are surprised that we are not seeing more," said Sandra Fourier, who supervises six counselors on the base.

Fourier said children do not have the verbal skills to talk about their problems like adults, and many respond to stress by picking fights or disobeying. Some change from outgoing, happy children to quiet, sullen youngsters. Others have trouble sleeping and some simply cry a lot.

War and bloodshed are never mentioned in the puppet show. The characters talk about feelings that make them behave unlike themselves. If he's not himself, True wonders, who is he?

B.C. Evans, the Marine family therapist who wrote the play, said she hoped to help children cope with their feelings without introducing the frightening topic of war and the danger faced by the deployed Marines.

"I couldn't have [the play] say, 'It's going to get better.' We don't know if it will," she said. "All I could say was, 'Be true to yourself.' "

Most of the students Wednesday were not accompanied by their parents and were not allowed to speak to reporters. But a few older children who attended did come with parents and acknowledged struggling with their emotions.

Since Marine 1st Sgt. Ian Hamilton was sent to the Middle East in January, his son, Javier, 13, has tried to concentrate on playing basketball to keep from thinking too much about the war. And he has been better about his chores, said his mother, 1st Sgt. Starlene Hamilton -- a sign that Javier seems to have grown up a lot since his father left. "I don't have to tell him to take out the trash," she said. "He just does it."

Javier said he is attempting to fill his father's shoes until he returns. "I try to help my mom because I know my mom is already dealing with enough," he said.

Still, Javier said, he sometimes has trouble falling asleep at night as he thinks about his father on a desert battlefield. "When I go to sleep, I pray for him," he said.

For Daniel Brill, 13, the timing of his father's deployment could not have been worse. Gunnery Sgt. Robert Brill shipped out on Daniel's birthday, Feb, 8.

Daniel said he was just opening his presents when he noticed his mother, Tracy, crying. That's when his parents told him his father was leaving that evening.

Since then, Daniel said, his grades at school have slipped from A's and Bs to Cs and Ds. Daniel said he has attended counseling sessions at the Marine base Family Advocacy Center and has tried to improve his grades. He said he also helps his 9-year-old brother, Robbie, cope with their father's absence.

"I made a few promises and one was to be the man of the family," Daniel said. "I try to help out as hard as I can."

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