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April 5, 2012 | 12:00 a.m. CST
Although her son had declared that he wanted to be a Marine since he was 4 years old, Tracy Della Vecchia thought it was just a phase.
Her son’s decision to become a Marine led Della Vecchia to conceive MarineParents.com, a site devoted to informing and helping parents and family members of Marines connect with one another.
After Derrick, 29, was deployed to Iraq in 2003, Della Vecchia, 50, had many questions that went unanswered. She wondered how much it cost to send a letter overseas and what would happen if her son got injured.
Della Vecchia used skills from her job as a web designer at her company, DV Technologies, to create MarineParents.com in 2003. The site rapidly gained attention and escalated to the top of search engines.
Now, nine years later, the organization has 15 employees, six outreach programs and 400 volunteers.
The Congressional Medal of Honor Association recently recognized Della Vecchia’s efforts and nominated her as one of 20 finalists for the Service Before Self honors award.
Della Vecchia sat down with Vox to share her experiences as a Marine mom on a mission to help families through this difficult time.
What is the biggest challenge of being a Marine mom?
The biggest challenge when (Derrick) was deployed was keeping your wits about you. When you’ve experienced deployment to a combat zone, that’s tough. Scared to death that those two Marines are going to come knocking at your door. That fear never goes away until they’re home. He did three tours, and that was two years of my life that I spent thinking someone’s going to come knocking at the door.
Did creating the website make it easier to get through your son’s deployment?
Absolutely, because I was in touch with other people who understood what I was going through. When I hop online and connect with the other families who are military, whose sons and daughters are deployed right alongside mine, you just feel like you’re home. So it’s nice to know that you’re with other people who understand, and you’re not alone in this. There are other families who are just as afraid as you are.
What has been the most rewarding story that’s taken place as a result of the website?
In 2004, one of the mothers … the Marines came to her door and said, “Your son’s been killed.” She immediately came on the website and said: “God help me. The Marines showed up at my door. My Phil is gone.” That happens more than I’d like to say. The first time that I met her, she said, “Do you think I should start a foundation in my son’s name?” For me it was a no-brainer. And she said, “My son, Phil, had a big heart, and I think I want to call it ‘The Heart of a Marine.’” Now she has a huge entity in Chicago. The fact that two moms could come together and make a difference … That’s probably one of the biggest moments that keeps you putting one foot in front of the other.
What’s the one thing you wish people knew about deployment?
It’s tough on the families back home. You send your kid off to war and nothing in your life is normal again until they come home. There’s this constant fear… it’s not like sending your kid to college. It’s considerably different. You’re so intensely afraid that something bad is going to happen that everything in your life circles around that.
What’s in the future for the website?
We’re going to take some of the work that we do and combine it into another site called After the Marine Corps (AfterTheCorps.com). We’ll combine those pieces into one outreach for information for Marine Corps vets and the Individual Ready Reserve, which means after they get out of the Marine Corps they have an additional three to four years that they have to serve. The websites are getting a complete overhaul over the next three to four months and will update much of our information.
How does it feel to know you’ve reached and helped so many people through this website?
When I think of specific instances, it’s overwhelming to think that we could’ve touched this many lives in this amount of time. When I hear other people say, “Gosh, I couldn’t have done this without Marine Parents,” I feel honored. Honestly, the part that I don’t like about this is that we’ve gotten so big that I’m not the one helping people anymore. It’s the organization that’s helping them now, not me. And I originally started this because I was helping people, so I miss that a lot. I’d rather be the person helping them, rather than running the business.
How can the general public be more supportive to military families?
Participating in the outreach programs that we have is the best way to do it. Outreach programs like The Care Package Project and Operation PAL, we have researched, and we spend a lot of time figuring out what Marines truly need, and so working with us, with the programs that we have is a great way to be involved. I think it’s a good idea to check with someone who understands what the military personnel actually need first before moving gung ho.
The site has a lot to offer. Do you think people benefit most from a particular service?
As family members of Marines, they probably benefit most with just being able to come together and connect with one another, somebody that’s going through the same thing that they’re going through.