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Volunteers help family rebuild

Volunteers pitched in to rebuild a backyard deck for Patricia Peterson and her children, Jayden and Caitlin. Justin Peterson, husband and father, was killed in Iraq in 2006. Photo by Phil Custodio (click for larger version)
June 23, 2010 - Nothing can replace a husband and father, killed in the line of duty in Iraq. But people can help.

"It's amazing what can be accomplished in one day," said Patricia Peterson, "Patty," of Independence Township. "We have a nice, safe deck to walk on, and enjoy the summer on."

Employees from BAE Systems' facility in Sterling Heights, local contractors, and home improvement companies all volunteered time and materials to rebuild the Peterson family's backyard deck, June 17.

"This is an opportunity to help someone out who lost a significant other in battle," said Scott E. Rutter, Strategic Programs director for BAE Systems' U.S. Combat Systems. "The employees here are all volunteering their own time."

Patricia's husband, Marine Capt. Justin Peterson, was a supply officer with 1st Tank Battalion, 1st Marine Division, on his first deployment to Iraq. He was killed in a vehicle crash, Oct. 1, 2006, in Al Anbar Province.

For a while, Patty handled things mostly by herself. That lasted about two years.

"My son started saying, 'I miss dad,'" she said. "That's something I'm not really equipped to deal with. I was looking for something to help with the kids."

Jayden, 6, and sister Caitlin, 4, are too young to remember their father – what they know about him comes from their mother, as well as photographs and videos. But they see friends and classmates in school with their dads and know something's missing, Patty said.

She turned to Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors, or TAPS, a nonprofit veterans service organization based in Washington, D.C.

"It's very good for all of us," she said. "They reach out to help as many groups as possible, and they do it well – wives, husbands, children, parents, aunts, uncles. They have one support group just for fiancés."

BAE Systems, a global defense, security and aerospace company, works with TAPS to arrange service projects for local families.

"BAE Systems has a deep-rooted and corporate-wide philosophy of giving back to the communities where our employees live and work," said Joe McCarthy, vice president and general manager of Heavy Brigade Combat Team Systems for BAE Systems. "We are honored Patty agreed to let us build a new deck for her and her children."

They contacted Patty this past February.

"They asked, 'what can we do,' and we figured out this project," she said. "The workers have been great – their generosity has had such a tremendous impact on our family and others. My children and I are so grateful."

The Petersons previously lived at the Marine base in southern California. Patty, pregnant with Caitlin, and Jayden moved back to Michigan when Justin's unit deployed.

"He wanted me to stay with my parents (Ken and Sherry Goss of Independence Township) while he was gone," Patty said. "We've stayed in the area ever since."

She and the children recently moved into a house in Independence Township, where they are still adapting to life without Justin.

"All the little things he used to do, those become bigger," Patty said. "My Christmas and birthday lists for my parents, and brother and sister are to-do lists, not presents. The kids and I learning to live our new life. It's not what I thought I'd be doing, but I'm doing what I have to."

She attends regional TAPS seminars, participated in the Marine Corps marathon and volunteered at the 2010 National Military Widow Seminar. Most recently, she enrolled in the TAPS Peer Mentor program to support newly bereaved military family members.

"They connect people with shared experiences, so you don't feel out there by yourself. It's a very good thing," she said

Founded in 1994, TAPS provides peer-based emotional support, grief and trauma resources, seminars, casework assistance, and 24/7 crisis intervention care for those affected by a death in the Armed Forces. Services are free.

"There are a lot of survivors out there – children, parents, siblings," said Rutter, retired lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army and TAPS volunteer. "We reach out to local communities and work together to help them build a new life."

Justin joined the Marines in 1992, serving in the reserves while in college, then active duty as an officer.

"Justin always wanted to be in the Marine Corps – when I met him at 17 years old, he'd already signed his enlistment papers," Patty said. "That was who he was, what he wanted to do. He was one of those people who knew what he wanted to do and had fun getting there."

For more information on TAPS, go to www.taps.org or call their toll-free crisis line at 1-800-959-TAPS.

Phil is editor for The Clarkston News. He is a veteran of the first Iraq war, having served in the U.S. Army.
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