Deploying troops at BWI send home bedtime stories

Sometime in the next few days, Gunnery Sgt. Blaine Scott will arrive in Afghanistan for a three-month stint. Around the same time, his two young children, Isabella and Blaine Jr., will get a package addressed especially to them in the mail at their home in California.

Before the 18-year veteran of the Marine Corps boarded a plane at Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport headed to the Middle Eastern war zone late Tuesday, a cheerful and smiling Scott pored over a selection of brand-new donated books, selecting a mystery for his 7-year-old daughter and a book about trucks for his 4-year-old son.

"I haven't seen my kids in forever," Scott said. He's already been away for several months as he trained for his deployment. "I figured it will be good for them."

Then Scott took off his weighty backpack loaded with gear, and sat before a video camera in his military fatigues to send a message to his kids.

"Hey, guys, this is Dad!" he began.

Being away from his family during the holiday season is just one of many sacrifices Blaine Scott has made. During his time in the service, Scott has been deployed several times. Four years ago, he was badly burned on his face and arms by an improvised explosive device during an attack in Iraq.

Around the world, military men and women who will be away from their families for the holiday season will have the chance to choose a book for their children and record a video message on DVD that will be sent to their family free of charge. The nonprofit group United Through Reading partnered with the United Service Organizations — or USO — to start the program in 1990.

This year, Publications International Ltd., a Lincolnwood, Ill. based publishing house, donated thousands of recordable books in an effort dubbed "Operation Record a Story," with book titles such as "Guess How Much I Miss You" and the classic holiday poem "A Visit from St. Nicholas." Service members can serve as narrator of the books, with their voices reading the story aloud as each page is turned. The books typically retail at around $20. The program, including the books and DVDs, is free to service members.

The recordings will take place onboard aircraft carriers and at military bases, USO locations and at airports around the United States, and on bases in Iraq, Afghanistan and Kuwait. BWI, which serves as a hub for military deployment flights, is one of 10 locations worldwide offering the program

Mike Sieczkowski, executive vice president of product development at Publications International, said the partnership was a way to "honor the sacrifices of military parents who are separated from their children while serving our country."

"What's a better gift than your child hearing your voice reading a bedtime story?" said Sieczkowski.

At BWI, volunteers with the local Metropolitan USO run the program.

Lucia Zabrowski, whose daughter served in the Air Force, has volunteered at the USO for about nine months. Her love of books made a natural match for the United Through Reading program.

"You get to talk to the troops, talk about their kids and their wives," said Zabrowski. "It's special."

Typically, the deploying troops arrive at the airport about six hours before their flights take off.

Daniel Whelton, a retiree from Calvert County, usually handles the sales pitch, as the soldiers and Marines wait in a winding line. "Do you have any kids at home?" he asks. "Do I got a deal for you!"

Lt. Col. Aaron Young, an officer in the Air Force who lives in Kathleen, Ga., with his wife and three young kids, chose books for his children as he waited for his flight.

"They love to read," said Young, who was headed to Afghanistan. "It will be a surprise. I'm not going to tell them."

Marine 2nd Lt. Nathan Reed carefully selected a book for each of his four sons.

"One of them likes trucks," Reed said. "The others like animals."

It was the first deployment for the Shelbyville, Ky., native, who joined the Marine Corps last year after a career as a commercial jetliner pilot. He always wanted to join the military, he said, and figured at 31, it was now or never.

He'll be away from his family for about a year while stationed in Afghanistan. The separation from his family will be "tough on Mommy," Reed said of his wife, Erin, who'll be caring for sons Zane, 4; Lyrek, 3; Noah, 1; and Liam, 3 months.

He said it is difficult to leave his kids around the holidays. "It's just really sad," he said.

"The kids will love it," Reed said of the books and DVD. "It will give Mommy a break for about 15 to 20 minutes. Hopefully, they won't wear out the DVD."