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Feeding a need

Densfords seek assistance with meals program that supports military families as they visit injured or ill servicemen at National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda

Military service is a family tradition for Peggy and Joe Densford's family. Two of their three children are Marines — Capt. Nathan Densford, 30, is currently serving his third tour in Iraq as an air operations officer. Sgt. Seth Densford, 25, a veteran of Afghanistan, is currently serving at Camp Lejeune, N.C. Nathan is a 1997 graduate of Great Mills High School. Seth is a 2002 graduate of St. Mary's Ryken


Wednesday, Aug. 5, 2009
Staff writer

"They are the eighth generation in my family to serve," Peggy said of her sons.

On Joe's side of the family, his father was one of six sons who served on active duty during World War II.

So, Joe and Peggy aren't surprised by the mix of anxiety and pride that they feel about their sons' decision to serve. For generations their family has dealt with those feelings.

But the Densfords felt a need to be involved … somehow.

For the past two years they have volunteered with the Purple Heart Family Support program that provides meals and a listening ear to families of Marines and sailors visiting their loved ones as they are treated at the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda. It's a program that is in need of additional funding, and the Densfords are hoping the St. Mary's community will provide some help.

"It's more than just serving meals … there's a lot of social interaction," Joe said of the moral support offered by the program.

"For me, it's just so I could do something," Peggy said, as she and her husband sat in his law office in Leonardtown. "You have to do something."

When Seth was going through boot camp, another military parent told the Densfords about MarineParents, a group that provides support for Marine families and Marines and community awareness programs. The group was particularly helpful to Peggy, she said, to let her know what Seth was doing at boot camp and what that whole process was like.

It was from MarineParents that the Densfords learned about the meal-serving project, the Purple Heart Family Support program, which would become their volunteer project of choice. Peggy was already familiar with the need for such a service from her mother's experiences visiting her father while he was at the Bethesda medical center for eight weeks.

"We knew why they needed it," Peggy said of the program.

Every weekend, The Galley, the hospital-run cafeteria at Bethesda, and the food court are closed for business. While the hospital continues to provide meals for the patients, those visiting their injured or ill family member are left to search for food. It's a challenge.

"You can imagine how hard it is to leave the side of your wounded child or spouse, especially when they have first arrived from overseas," Peggy said.

The National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda is the designated hospital for wounded sailors and Marines returning to the continental United States from Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom.

"It's a large complex," Joe said. "There's a very large hospital facility. There are no stores, no houses … there's really not a lot around it." The complex is enclosed with gates and is located on Wisconsin Avenue, across from the National Institutes of Health.

A Metro stop is within reach of Bethesda, but that can be time-consuming and intimidating to people visiting, many of whom are from out of town. Many are far away from what would be their normal source of support — their families, churches, friends, who would naturally provide meals during an illness or injury.

The Densfords told a story about one out-of-town mother visiting the Bethesda medical center who hadn't left her son's bedside for three days. The mother had been living off food from the candy machine in the hall. When volunteers brought her some food, "she burst into tears," Peggy said.

Peggy said the need is particularly acute for the family members of more seriously wounded servicemen. "They're walking around like zombies, and they can't even talk," she said, describing what she has observed at the hospital.

The Densfords have been involved with the volunteer meals program for the past two years. They travel to Bethesda one day a month and with other volunteers help distribute meals that are purchased from a nearby California Tortilla. The volunteers generally take turns supplying drinks and cups. Meals are distributed to patients and hospital staff also, when possible.

It costs $800 to $900 to serve about 100 people, Joe said.

"They're always so grateful," Peggy said of the response, and then added with tears in her eyes of one particular group of visitors she remembered who were visiting newly arrived wounded — "They just sat there and wanted you to sit with them."

The Purple Heart Family Support program relies on donations to continue to provide the meals service. The program has seen its funding decline. "When the economy tanked, the donations dried up," Peggy said.

In July, the group suspended meals delivery due to lack of funds. Meals will be served once in August thanks to funding from another group, Heart of a Marine.

The Densfords are hoping for community support for the meals program. Peggy noted that the need is particularly high right now with all the wounded Marines and sailors coming to Bethesda due to the recent operations in Afghanistan. "We need the money now," she said. "The Marines are coming in now."

The Densfords are hoping that an area business might offer financial support for the program.

It's a volunteer job that has come to mean a lot to the Densfords. "What you gather from [visiting Bethesda] is the enormous sacrifice those people have made … not temporary but long-term problems," Joe said, referring to the loss of limbs and other serious injuries.

"You just hope someone would do it for you," Peggy said of the meals program.


If you want to help

The Purple Heart Family Support program needs funding to continue offering meals and a listening ear to family members visiting Marines and sailors at the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda.

Donations to the program are tax deductible and can be mailed to MarineParents.com, Inc., P.O. Box 1115, Columbia, MO 65205; designated for the Purple Heart Family Support program.

For more information call 573-449-2003. For more information about MarineParents, visit www.MarineParents.com.