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Military families find help on the home front

First Lt. Robert Gervasio, with son Anthony outside

First Lt. Robert Gervasio, with son Anthony outside their Swansville, N.C., home. (May 3, 2012) Credit: Newsday/J. Conrad Williams, Jr.

CAMP LEJEUNE, N.C. -- When Lindenhurst native Robert Gervasio was preparing to leave for combat in Afghanistan two years ago, he learned that his wife, an active-duty Marine like him, was pregnant with their first child.

Being a married couple in the Marines in a time of war has presented a number of challenges to the Gervasios, from deployment to whether they could serve together on the same base. When Sarah Gervasio became pregnant, their worries became even more critical.

For Robert Gervasio, 24, the main concern was that his wife, whose family lived in Georgia, and whose longtime friends were scattered across the country, would not have much emotional support while he was gone. He also worried about her safety with him not around, and wanted to make sure she had access to prenatal care.

To address those concerns while Gervasio was in Afghanistan, his wife moved onto the Marine Corps base at Camp Pendleton, Calif., from an off-base apartment. There, she could make use of resources and tap into the military culture that are far less accessible to Long Islanders who are serving their country as part-time National Guard or Reserve troops.

"Before I moved onto post, I didn't have military neighbors, so no one knew what it was like to have a baby on the way and my husband fighting in Afghanistan," said Sarah Gervasio, 25. "It was difficult to relate. They figured I was pregnant, no big deal."

The Gervasios, who met as students at the Citadel, the Military College of South Carolina, are now based at Camp Lejeune, N.C. They married in November 2010, one month before he deployed, and while they were stationed on opposite coasts. Both are first lieutenants.

The couple and their 10-month-old son, Anthony, were reunited a few weeks ago when she was transferred from Pendleton to Lejeune. They moved into a modern home a few miles from the coastal Marine base only weeks ago. But already, he is off on a months-long training stint in the deserts of the American southwest.

 

Emotional support and more

Married couples in the armed services are not unusual, even in a time of war. The nation's military bases are designed to be family-friendly havens that provide uniformed personnel with everything they might need in a single location, including medical care, psychological services, housing, recreational facilities, social networks and even low-cost gas and groceries.

Military families say this support helps ease stresses brought on by combat deployments, frequent relocations, financial pressures and an insular military culture that is often misunderstood in the civilian world.

Base institutions also dispense free financial and legal advice, helping troops about to deploy get their affairs in order. And on-base military hospitals provide free medical services and psychological counseling for troops and their families.

Even public schools on or near military bases offer advantages to military families that schools on Long Island, attended by the children of Guard and Reserve members, typically do not. School officials at base-related schools are taught to watch for signs that a child might be struggling because of a parent's military involvement or deployment.

"It's a huge advantage for the active military," said New York Army National Guard Capt. Lou Delli-Pizzi, whose 69th Infantry Regiment has a Reserve facility in Farmingdale. "The guys on active duty, they have a chaplain right there, the commissary right there, medical services right there."

 

Peace of mind

With Robert Gervasio's deployment to Afghanistan in December 2010, Sarah Gervasio moved from an off-base apartment and into on-base family housing at Camp Pendleton. Before that, most of her neighbors had no clue what military life was like. The move surrounded her with people who were intimately familiar with its pressures and sacrifices.

Robert Gervasio said that, with the 72-bed Naval Hospital at Camp Pendleton providing his wife free prenatal care and delivery services, he had far fewer worries while he was in Afghanistan. And with non-domestic crime a relative rarity at America's military bases -- gated communities protected by armed guards -- Gervasio said he didn't stress about his wife being home alone.

"It was a tremendous relief to me," he said.

After their son was born, Sarah Gervasio made use of on-base recreational facilities to get back into shape. And the wife of another Marine offered to care for her child when she resumed her training six weeks after giving birth.

To be sure, the Guard and Reserve try to provide some of the same support for part-time troops that military bases provide for America's full-time military personnel.

At the Armed Forces Reserve Center in Farmingdale, military leaders provide support for "family readiness groups" -- social networks that help military spouses and their families cope with many of the same stresses that families of full-time troops endure, but who must do so while living in the suburbs.

Members of Reserve units on Long Island, including troops with the 69th Infantry Regiment, the 106th Air Rescue Wing, the 800th Military Police and the 2/25 Marine Infantry Battalion, can get medical care at the Northport Veterans Affairs Medical Center.

But the VA Medical Center does not offer pediatric services, meaning military families with children must look elsewhere. And while military bases provide legal, medical and other services in a central location close to where troops work and live, Delli-Pizzi said, Reserve troops typically must travel to several locations for the same services, while also juggling civilian lives.

"And we have the added distraction of having to find civilian employment," Delli-Pizzi said. "Guys on base have a paycheck."

 

Keeping troops focused

Delli-Pizzi said keeping soldiers focused and ready is a key challenge for leaders of Reserve units, because they can go weeks without seeing their troops. Active-duty troops who serve on America's military bases, on the other hand, interact with their superiors and peers on an almost daily basis.

Lance Cpl. Scott Ferrara, 21, of Massapequa, lives at Lejeune in a barracks that resembles a college dormitory, with rooms that open onto a grassy quad. When he wants to be with friends, he sticks his head out of his door.

While he was deployed in Afghanistan, combat stress left Ferrara with a heavy smoking habit. Several of the other soldiers in his platoon banded together to help him quit.

"That just brought us all closer together," Ferrara said, shortly after he and his platoon mates grunted through a twice-daily set of calisthenics in the quad. "I can strike up a conversation with any of these guys and feel comfortable."

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