Published: December 16, 2008 06:37 pm

Family's vision supports citizens of Iraq

Marine from TC aids humanitarian effort
Special to the Record-Eagle

TRAVERSE CITY -- Thanks to a family connection spanning continents and the generosity of Michigan residents, Operation Eyes On was a success.

For years, Suttons Bay resident Karen Fredrickson has been supporting her nephew, Sgt. Sam Williams of the 1st Battalion 2nd Marines. This is Williams' fourth deployment to Iraq and second with that company. The 1999 Traverse City West Senior High School graduate is the son Paul and Ann Fretheim of Grawn and Keith Williams of Puerto Rico; Paul Fretheim is Fredrickson's brother.

After deploying this fall, Williams' chaplain contacted Fredrickson for help obtaining prescription glasses for the people of Iraq.

Fredrickson immediately thought of Dr. Robert Foote of Traverse City, a former employer and family friend. Foote obtained 400 pairs of prescription eyeglasses from the Humanitarian Optical Prescription Endeavor (HOPE) based at the Deerfield Correctional Facility in Ionia. He also included several hundred pairs of reading glasses and sunglasses.

"We basically collect glasses from northwest Michigan and (HOPE student inmates) clean them and repair them if needed and put them in inventories for us to take to Honduras or Peru," said Foote, who travels twice yearly with Volunteer Optometric Services to Humanity to other countries. "Karen sent me a message and asked if I was still collecting glasses and if I had a source because of the positive effect it could have on the units in Iraq."

The glasses were distributed Nov. 18 at a clinic in Saqlawiyah, the first joint Iraqi and Coalition Forces mission to diagnose and treat eyesight problems.

"People should know about this whole circle," Fredrickson said. "When you donate a pair of glasses this is one of the avenues that glasses go."

Fredrickson is very proud of her nephew, who along with two other classmates graduated early and right away boarded a bus for basic training. Williams has been in the Corps ever since and served his first two tours in Iraq with the 1st Battalion 8th Marines.

His aunt's support for him, his comrades in arms and their families over the years made her the go-to person for help obtaining eyeglasses.

"She's amazing, she really is," said Ann Fretheim, Sam's mother, of her sister-in-law's energy and devotion.

Just before Christmas 2004, Fredrickson's support grew beyond letters and care packages to Williams plus updates to a family network. Determined that each member of his platoon would feel loved and supported on that holiday, she organized donations from around the country for the 38 men. As she readied for shipment the presents for each "adopted" Marine, news came that the group was headed to Fallujah, an intense battle zone at the time.

When casualty notices began coming in, men killed or wounded, Fredrickson was heartbroken at each report. Contacting the "adoptive" families with the grim news, she was determined the families of the fallen or wounded knew their husbands and fathers, brothers and sons were so cared for by complete strangers.

The network of connections soon expanded to include the whole battalion, survivors and their families as well as the families of those who died. Fredrickson spends countless hours even now fielding phone calls, visiting families, reaching out and sending care packages. Eventually forming Marine Support Network LLC, she continues to care for men and their families from 1st Battalion 8th Marines, whether they are still serving or have moved on to civilian life.

"We are now a huge family, we focus on these 23 families [of deceased Marines] and the 150-160 men in Sam's battalion, the 1/8," said Fredrickson, who is organizing a reunion for July 4 in Washington D.C. "Because we just keep everybody connected, we're the hub. It's definitely 24/7, I can't begin to tell you how busy it is."