SAM RYAN GAGE BLACK JACKSON ROBINSON
Denis Poroy  /  AP
Lance Cpl. Samuel Ryan holds Gage Black, 11, on his shoulders for an easy basket as Jackson Robinson, 12, watches during a Big Brothers Big Sisters party at Camp Pendleton Marine base in San Diego on Tuesday.
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updated 6/19/2005 2:52:04 PM ET 2005-06-19T18:52:04

You rarely see Marines embrace.

Yet Lynne Gilstrap, principal at the Mary Fay Pendleton School at this Marine base, has seen it happen when troops return from Iraq and Afghanistan. They have every reason to let their emotions flow after missions that were protracted and sometimes scary.

But there’s more to it than that — they’re greeting surrogate dads who stepped in to guide their kids while they were gone.

“I’ve seen grown men actually ... giving each other a bear hug,” the principal says.

On this Father’s Day, it should be noted that more than a fifth of men on active military duty — about 225,000 — are fathers, according to the Pentagon. The lives of their children, says Nancy Campbell, who works in Army family services, “are turned upside down.”

A tutor, and a sympathetic ear
Untold numbers of men and women — relatives, neighbors, other servicemen and women — have marched to the aid of these children as temporary mentors. They play softball and board games, help with homework, and try to ease childhood’s troubles with a sympathetic ear until the return of the deployed dads — or, sometimes, moms.

Some join programs like the one run by Big Brothers Big Sisters inside three public schools at Camp Pendleton, the city-sized base south of Los Angeles. Other mentors step forward informally to help brighten a dark time for a child.

“I got to have some time with somebody,” said Gage Black, a shivering 11-year-old wrapped in a towel after frolicking with other kids and their mentors at an end-of-school pool party at Camp Pendleton. “I’m not so lonely.”

His father, who was away in Iraq, has now returned — but expects to ship out again soon.

Gage’s mentor, Lt. Col. Sam Pelham, knows more than a little about comforting children: He is a father of three and, as a reservist, has worked in civilian life as an elementary school teacher. As mentor, Pelham would often ask the boy how his family was doing.

Taking their cue from the kids
“If he was tightlipped, I’d let him be tightlipped,” said Pelham. “It was his hour, and I didn’t direct any of it. I was his running mate, basketball teammate, whatever he wanted.”

Mentors have visited Mary Fay Pendleton School once a week. Principal Gilstrap says she has seen striking changes in the children: “They were so excited ... to tell the ‘bigs’ what they had done during the week, that their whole attitude toward school and school work seemed to change.”

Samuel Ryan did his mentoring this week on a Camp Pendleton basketball court. Jackson Robinson, 12, grabbed a basketball from the hefty Marine, who looked like Shaquille O’Neal opposite the gangly boy. Jackson’s mother is in Iraq.

When Ryan looks at Jackson, he thinks of his own brother, now battling leukemia in Walton, Ky. “When I was being in the Marine Corps, I missed most of my little brother’s important times — 16th birthday, 18th birthday,” Ryan said. “So this is a chance for me to kind of make up for that and be there for somebody.”

Rooting from the sidelines
In Martinsburg, W. Va., Marty Kilmer was there for Christa Carr in her moment of automotive need. More than anything else, Christa needed a hand tuning up her car for the soapbox derby while her father was deployed with the Air National Guard. Kilmer, a retired guardsman in nearby Inwood who has flown with her father, helped the girl adjust the car’s wheels, tighten the cables, and get ready to race.

“My mom probably wouldn’t have been able to do it,” says the 11-year-old girl.

Then came race day. Kilmer was there, watching from the sidelines like a proud dad. Of course, he wasn’t her father, but he found the right words anyway. “I knew she wished her dad was there. I told her he was there in heart,” says Kilmer.

In Wichita, Kan., Amanda Jallo, 10, had worked hard on her reading with her mentor, 16-year-old Monica Khurana, even before her father left. In April, he was finally sent to Qatar for a tour to last through the summer.

“The day he left, I just broke down crying,” his daughter remembered. But her mentor was there. “She said, ‘He’ll be back soon.”’

Giving and getting
The mentors don’t just give. They get too. “Amanda, she’s just so kindhearted and genuine, every time I visit her she just lifts my spirits,” says her mentor.

Some mentors mean to pay a debt of sorts to the deployed fathers. “I just wanted to do something for the military, and I can’t serve anymore, so I did this,” said Rich Alan, 67, of Vista, Calif., a former seaman who has mentored two boys.

Gilstrap, the principal, said many Marine mentors are themselves veterans of the war in Iraq. They often feel as though they are returning a favor to the Marine replacing them by giving their time to yet another Marine’s child.

Often tutoring in their uniforms on break from other duties, these mentors sometimes find it easier to connect with the child. “They can identify with the child’s life and military life,” said Beverly Perna, a staffer at Big Brothers Big Sisters of San Diego County.

But Pelham, the reservist, thinks just about anyone can mentor these children.

“I think anybody who’s willing to volunteer their time for a kid has got the right perspective,” he said. “I was a big guy to play around with. I just wear the same uniform as his dad.”

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