Group steps out to drum up funds for military families

LACEY - It's a week away, but organizers of this year's Military Family Support March have almost reached their goal of raising $50,000 to benefit people in need.

They've brought in $42,000, and their success has been building in the five years since the event was dreamed up by volunteers to financially assist families stressed by the deployment of a spouse or family member.

This is the first year in which local businesses and residents have gone out of their way to contribute, said Andrew Oczkewicz, the march's co-director. Organizers of the first march raised more than $12,000 by seeking out individual donors and business sponsors.

"We're no longer having to make the pitch," he said.

Past marches have drawn about 2,500 people; Oczkewicz said he expects a record crowd Saturday.

The four previous marches have raised more than $150,000, which has helped military families pay for child care, purchase gifts during the holidays and put food on the table, organizers say.

They hope to raise the rest of the money this year through individual donations on the day of the event.

A donation is encouraged but not required for families to participate in the march or events.

"The money's already there," Oczkewicz said. "We don't have to worry about that like in the past. Now we just want everybody to show up for our local families, an integral part of our community."

This year's grand marshal will be Tom "Tomcat" Nelson, thought to be one of two remaining World War II Navy veterans who witnessed Pearl Harbor and were taken prisoner of war. He lives south of Yelm.

Nelson joined the Navy Reserve in May 1938 and was ordered to active duty two years later.

He was a radioman assigned to the aviation division of the USS San Francisco during the attack by Japan on the Pacific Fleet.

He subsequently was assigned to the USS Enterprise and was the radioman, bombardier and radar man aboard a Grumman TBF Avenger torpedo plane that was shot down in the South Pacific during the Battle of the Santa Cruz Islands on Oct. 26, 1942. He parachuted to safety and floated in the ocean for 26 hours before a Japanese warship picked him up.

Nelson spent almost three years in prisoner-of-war camps before returning home.

At 87, he still has an impeccable memory with dates.

"It's hard to forget them after you've lived them," he said.

In addition, organizers have named five honorary grand marshals, all local service members. They are:

Army Maj. Hank Barnes

Army Maj. Brent Clemmer

Army Staff Sgt. Chess Johnson

Army Staff Sgt. John Paul Kaiser

Marine Sgt. Robert Rauch

The march is organized by the Rotary Club of Hawks Prairie.

Christian Hill covers the city of Lacey and military for The Olympian. He can be reached at 360-754-5427 or chill@theolympian.com. Military family support march

Registration for the fifth annual Military Family Support March begins at 8:30 a.m. on Saturday, in the parking lot of the Wal-Mart located at 1401 Galaxy Drive N.E. in Lacey.

The march begins at 9:30 a.m.

There is a major change to the march this year to prevent disruptions to the growing number of motorists who travel to the area to shop at the many retailers that have opened in the last several years.

Marchers will head down Galaxy Drive and turn on Martin Way but they won't travel as far on Martin Way before returning to the Wal-Mart. As a result, they will no longer cross to the south side of Martin Way and the march will be a half-hour instead of an hour.

Participants will march on the street, so motorists are encouraged to use caution. Police officers will be on hand to direct traffic.

Overflow parking will be limited as vacant property on the east side of Galaxy Drive, which served that function in the past, is now being developed.

An expanded Kid Zone will be attended before the march by well-known mascots and clowns and feature activities and games. A helicopter will drop taffy down to the kids. The American Legion Band will provide the music. U.S. Rep. Adam Smith, D-Tacoma, and First Gentleman Mike Gregoire will attend.

For more information or to register online, go to www.militaryfamilymarch.com.

For those who can't attend the event, contributions can be mailed to: The Military Family Support March, PMB-122, 1401 Marvin Road NE, Suite 307, Lacey, WA 98516.