Marie Marsh's son Robert and their dog Baxter pose for...

Marie Marsh's son Robert and their dog Baxter pose for a photo that later become the cover of Marsh's book "Courage." (June 2005) Credit: Marie Marsh

On July 5, 2005, Marie Marsh’s son Robert left for Iraq on his first deployment with the U.S. Navy.

Her son’s deployment brought the St. James woman into the worrisome world of military families, but also set her on a path to help them.

This month, Marsh is collecting donations for Operation: Military Kids, a national outreach program aimed at the children of military personnel not living on a military base.

The campaign collects “comfort items” such as books, toys and stuffed animals, along with things like stationery, cameras, photo frames and albums for documenting their lives while a parent is deployed, and stuffs them into a backpack to deliver to the children. The goal is to recognize that the children are also making a sacrifice to the country by being without a parent.

Marsh, 58, said Operation: Military Kids struck a chord with her because she never expected the intensity of the emotions she and her family experienced during her son’s deployment. She hopes that people will reach out -- like so many of her own friends and neighbors did for her family -- and let the children know they are heroes, too.

“The most important thing we would like to get into this backpack is letters from people to these kids thanking them for their courage and their bravery,” she said. “It’s them that have to part with a parent not ever knowing if they are going to come home. That takes courage.”

In addition to the campaign, Marsh published a children’s book this year based on her family’s experience. “Courage” is about a dog by the same name and his mission to get adopted by a certain family he meets as the son in the family is being deployed. The circumstances of the family first seeing the dog at a pet shop are the same as the Marsh family, who bought their dog Baxter on the day Robert Marsh deployed.

Marsh said the book is about how the dog helped the family find happiness during a difficult time.

Operation: Military Kids is administered locally by the Cornell Cooperative Extension 4-H program, led by Vicki Fleming, the youth development program director. Fleming said Marsh reached out to her organization after hearing about the program because she felt connected to the mission.

“Because she had written the book and gone through the deployment with her son, she wanted to give back,” Fleming said.

The backpacks also include a copy of Marsh’s book.

Marsh said both endeavors were her way of showing of gratitude for all the support given to her family.

“I may not be able to repay those people who helped us,” she said. “But I can pass it on.”

Donations and letters for the backpacks can be dropped off at three locations in St. James: Elements of Home, at 412 North Country Rd.; Hither Brook Nursery, at 559 Route 25A; and Tic Toc Café, at 410 Lake Ave.

Photo: Marie Marsh's sone Robert with Baxter, the family dog, in a photo that is on the cover of Marsh's children's book, "Courage." (June 2005)

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