Supporting the troops

City drafts residents for pen-pal program to correspond with troops from the legendary Kentucky 101st Airborne Division, also known as the “Gators.”

By Sara Rosner / Special to The Malibu Times

If watching movies, reading the papers and listening to the news haven’t brought the war home yet, people may soon find some action in their mailboxes. Malibu is offering residents an opportunity on Veterans Day to sign-up for correspondence with soldiers of the 101st Airborne Division (also known as the “Gators”) who are in Iraq.

Marissa Coughlan, the liaison between the city and the division since Oct. 2004, said that although exact times have yet to be decided, there will be a presentation on the division and residents will be able to sign up for the pen-pal program and choose a soldier from a list of names at City Hall.

The correspondence is part of an effort the city has made to support the troops since it adopted the division in 2002. The adoption program was initiated with help from America Supporting Americans, an organization in the Pacific Palisades that fosters the adoptions of troops by towns and cities across the country.

City Councilman Ken Kearsley participated in the pen-pal program when the soldiers were sent to Iraq in 2003. He and his wife adopted a sergeant who visited Malibu on July 4 last year and recently sent the Kearsleys a picture of his first home.

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“We’ve got a lifetime friend now,” Ken Kearsley said.

While support for the war in Iraq is contentious, Kearsley said the city’s adoption of the division was not a political move.

“We’re not supporting the war necessarily, we’re supporting them,” Kearsley said. “This is about people doing good things without the politics.”

Coughlan agreed saying that the 80 soldiers available for correspondence either had no family or needed the extra support from home.

“These are someone’s husbands, sons or fathers,” Coughlan said of the men, most of whom are between the ages of 18 and 22. “I would want someone to support my family in their endeavors and I want to do that for them.”

In addition to the pen-pal program, Coughlan has also organized several fundraising efforts. She raised $10,000 to give each of the 140 men in the division two Under Armour shirts for Christmas last year. She also raised $20,000 to buy gear for the troops before they left for Iraq in September. One of the devices included a flashlight that was equipped with a laser to detect traps and a light that could blind someone for up to two hours.

As the liaison, Coughlan was invited to the June 2005 “Week of the Eagles” celebration, an event that allows civilians to meet with the soldiers and learn about the division at their base in Fort Campbell, Ky. The division conducts all combat tactics and strategies from helicopters and is the only air assault division in the world. It has also been the subject of popular entertainment, including the HBO series “Band of Brothers” and the film “Saving Private Ryan.”

While at the base, Coughlan had the opportunity to try some of the training equipment, including a Black Hawk simulator and an assault rifle with a launcher. She also tried on the combat gear.

“It was so heavy, all I could do was sit on the couch,” said the 5-foot, 2-inch Coughlan.

Though Coughlan initially thought that meeting the soldiers would be emotionally difficult for her as a mother, she said the young men inspired her.

“I fell in love with them all. They really watch and protect each other, and that’s something that we could use more of in the real world,” Coughlan said of the young men who she refers to as “my boys.”

Coughlan also observed the sentiments of the 101st Airborne troops. “They are so together and passionate about what they believe,” Coughlan said. “They are unequivocal in their devotion and with what they want to do.”

Kearsley, who served in the Air Force, also noticed the soldiers’ dedication. “These are people who are doing it for various reasons, but they want to serve their country,” Kearsley said. “They have a real feeling of obligation.”

Coughlan is also raising money to send troops personal items and entertainment in the form of DVDs, crossword puzzles and books.

More information about donating to the troops or about becoming a pen pal can be obtained by contacting Marissa Coughlan through City Hall or by visiting the city’s Web site at www.ci.malibu.ca.us

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The Malibu Times is the first newspaper in Malibu, serving the community since 1946.

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