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thedrifter
06-27-03, 06:53 AM
Groups help fill voids left by military deaths


By Jeanette Steele
UNION-TRIBUNE STAFF WRITER

June 26, 2003

In the rush of emotions that hit Stacy Menusa when Camp Pendleton officials said her husband was gone, the young mother remembers a flicker of fear.

"The first thing I thought was, 'How am I going to take care of me and my son?' " said Menusa, whose Marine spouse, Joseph, was killed while fighting in Iraq on March 27.

Others have wondered the same thing.

Recently, a Santa Barbara software executive pledged $300,000 of his money to help ensure children of America's new war dead don't go hungry.

Dan O'Dowd launched the Fallen Heroes Last Wish Foundation in April. The nonprofit group plans to give $5,000 to each child of a service member who died in the Iraqi conflict, whether in combat or in an accident.

Many of those checks will go to Camp Pendleton families, like Menusa's, who received the foundation's first grant on behalf of her 3-year-old son, Joshua. Thirty-one Marines from the base have died in the war effort, and many of those men left young children.

O'Dowd, who has no military ties, said he was watching war news one day and began thinking about the children. He has two boys, 10 and 12.

"We should do right by them," said O'Dowd, founder and chief executive of Green Hills Software Inc. "We should make sure they are raised properly and have sufficient money for education and sufficient money to go through life."

He is challenging other business people to step forward to help. O'Dowd started the charity with $100,000 and said he will match outside contributions up to an additional $200,000. His company produces software that drives computer chips in various high-tech devices.

"I'm encouraging CEOs CEOS have gotten a bit of bad rap recently. These (troops) died protecting their businesses, protecting us . . . . This is a pretty small price to pay," O'Dowd said.

His foundation joins other private organizations that provide funds to military families. One is the New Jersey-based Marine Corps Law Enforcement Foundation, which gives scholarships to children who lost a parent in war. Other groups are forming, said one local military official who works with grieving families.

Long-standing government programs also exist to support survivors and their children.

The most substantial is military life insurance of up to $250,000. Surviving spouses also get monthly payments equal to 55 percent of the service member's retirement pay, or $950 a month, whichever is more, according to a government handbook. Additional monthly funds are provided for children, and Social Security benefits also are possible.

Still, that's often not enough, said Maj. Matthew Cord, a casualty assistance calls officer at Camp Pendleton. Cord has worked with one base widow and has steered others to Fallen Heroes, which he called "fantastic."

"(Government assistance) seems like it might be a lot upfront, but they often have debts and mortgage payments," Cord said. "If there's a wife and two or three children, it doesn't really go that far."

O'Dowd, whose privately held company is reported to have $59 million in yearly sales, calls the existing survivor benefits "not enough to raise a family."

So far, his foundation has awarded three checks to Marine families and gave applications to 10 others. The money is available to any military child who lost a parent in the Iraqi conflict, or its aftermath, said Mari Mender, the foundation's associate director. The foundation doesn't have requirements on how the money can be spent.

Menusa, 31, recently moved to Santa Maria with her son. Her survivor's benefits allowed her to buy a house there, where she grew up and where she buried her husband of seven years.

She said she deposited O'Dowd's $5,000 check into an account for her son's education. A student at San Diego State University before her husband's death, Menusa said she knows how daunting Joshua's future college bills might be.

"We're really fortunate that companies like them want to step up and fill some of the void we're feeling right now," she said. "As far as financial status, it is touch-and-go. I don't know what tomorrow's going to hold for me."



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Jeanette Steele: (760) 476-8244; jen.steele@uniontrib.com

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