Military families get connected: Support group organizes family fun day

Karen Goulart

To a 2-year-old girl whose father is in the military, the handsome young man in Army fatigues looked so familiar.

Reaching down, the little girl grabbed a bunch of dry grass, grasping the makeshift bouquet in her tiny fist. She ran toward the soldier yelling “Da-da!” - wrapping her arms around his leg in a giddy embrace.

The soldier gracefully accepted the show of affection, lifting her up and kissing her on a cheek streaked with joyful tears.

But he wasn’t her daddy.

Daddy, Major Kenneth Wisniewski, is 6,000 miles away, serving with the National Guard in Iraq.

Bouncing 5-month-old Kenneth IV on her hip, tears rimmed Holly Wisniewski’s eyes as she recalled the scene.

“It was so heart-breaking,” said Wisniewski, the mother of 2-year-old Ava. “But I wanted her to be happy, so I let her go ahead.”

Sharing the experience

Being happy, having fun, was what brought the Lakeville family to Grace Baptist Church in Hudson on a recent hot, sunny Saturday afternoon.

Holly Wisniewski, Ava, Kenneth, and 3-year-old Katie - and Holly’s mom, Donna McElroy of Hanover - were among the nearly 100 people from around New England at a picnic in the town of Hudson held by the Family Readiness Group of Delta Company, 1st Battalion of the 181st Infantry Regiment of the Massachusetts National Guard.

The soldier that Ava mistook for her daddy was fresh out of boot camp, a 17-year-old named Bret Redfern. The Army Reservist was there with his mother, Jennifer.

His dad, Keith, also serves with Delta Company in Iraq.

Wrenching as that moment was, McElroy, who is Ava’s grandmother, said it was an unforgettable display of love and caring among families sharing the same experiences. And for the joy it brought to Ava, it was worthwhile.

“It was like an angelic moment,” she said. “That boy made my little granddaughter so happy and made his mother so proud of her son.”

The picnic was the first of what the leader of the Family Readiness Group, Solveig Sheehan of Weymouth, hopes will be many activities organized by the support group in the months to come.

For the children

Sheehan, 31, took on the leadership role when her husband, 1st Sgt. Richard Sheehan, was called to duty in May. She wanted the first big group event to revolve around the children the soldiers left behind.

With the help of her own volunteers and members of the Grace Baptist Church’s “Love In Action” service group, she put together the event to allow children to learn and have fun - and for adults to remember they are not alone while their spouses and other family members are away at war.

In addition to food and games, volunteers at activity stations tried to help children understand and connect with their duty-bound parents and siblings.

At one station, Rosemary Cruz, 14, of Worcester decorated a wooden picture frame in red, white and blue letters spelling out “ROMAN” - her step-father’s last name.

Moments earlier, wrapped in an oversized camouflage jacket with his name on the pocket, she posed in front of an American flag for a photo to go in the frame and be shipped to the Middle East.

Angel Roman, 29, has been in the National Guard for many years, Cruz said. He once spent a year in Cuba, she said, and was deployed to Iraq for the first time in June.

“It’s stressful and hard,” Cruz said, pressing another letter on the frame. “But we talk, he has an Internet connection, and over the phone

He’s fine, he’s doing good.”

Sgt. Harry Georgeakakis has been in the National Guard for 25 years, but he had never been deployed until three months after he met his wife, Joanne. The first time, Joanne said, was a military police stint at Fort Dix in New Jersey. Then in June, he was called to Iraq, where he’s doing construction work with the military, she said.

Keeping in touch

Georgeakakis, of Abington, is living with her husband’s parents now, a situation that’s been very helpful as she raises 2-year-old Kyra. She was looking forward to the picnic as a way to help Kyra stay connected with her dad. Along with the other children, Kyra was able to get a close-up look at the clothing and equipment her dad uses every day and to crawl inside a military Humvee.

“I’m here for her, I want her to have some knowledge of what the military is about, all she knows is daddy is in Iraq,” Georgeakakis said.

Other than being “a little more attached to Mommy,” Georgakakis said Kyra seems to have taken the separation well. Having a “Flat Daddy” - a life-size photo cut-out of her dad - also helps, she said with a laugh.

The dog tag around Ruth Arseneau’s neck shows why she is here today, and why she volunteered to organize the Family Readiness Group phone tree.

Etched on the shiny silver tag is a picture of 19-year-old Jeremy Arseneau and the words “Proud of My Son.”

Before being deployed to Iraq, Jeremy brought his mother information about getting involved as a volunteer.

“It’s a great way to keep in touch,” Arseneau said. “It’s the best way to keep up with information on what’s going on.”

As the afternoon wound down, tired but smiling, Sheehan deemed the day a success - from the “grown-up business” meeting that started at 10 a.m. to the afternoon cutting of a giant red, white and blue cake.

“I’m very happy with the outcome, it seems like people are having a great time,” Sheehan said. “I think people are making connections.”

This was important to McElroy, who said her daughter was, at first, reluctant to attend.

“I said you need to reach out to these people and be connected,” McElroy said. “When you’re alone, that’s no good. When you know you’re not alone, that helps.”

Karen Goulart of The Patriot Ledger (Quincy, Mass.) may be reached at kgoulart@ledger.com.