Palm Desert charity celebrates $100,000 to 29 Palms Marines in first year

27 Jan 2006 | Gunnery Sgt. Christopher W. Cox

As a way to refocus themselves for the coming year, members, contributors and volunteers of the American Friends of our Armed Forces gathered at The Lakes Country Club Jan. 19 to celebrate their organization’s impact and discuss its direction for 2006.

What started as a handful of Palm Desert, Calif., neighbors supporting the Marine Corps Reserve Toys for Tots drive, has become a non-profit charity directly responsible for collecting and donating more than $100,000 to 11 different Marine Corps support programs here at the Combat Center, including the Single Marine Program, Marine Corps Community Services Youth Sports, the Officers’ Spouses Club, the Armed Services YMCA and the resident Boy and Girl Scout troops.

Four Marines from Combat Logistics Battalion 7 — including the unit’s commanding officer Lt. Col. Drew T. Doolin and Sgt. Maj. Larona E. Armstrong — and Navy Capt. David A. Starkey, the Combat Center Religious Ministries Director, were also in attendance to show their appreciation for the good work done on behalf of their fellow service members and their families.

“There were three Marines who came down to pick up the toys before Christmas season of 2004, and we had them sit with a group of us for dinner,” explained Walter Van Benthuysen, AFAF president, about how it all began. “We asked one Marine, ‘Do you play golf?’ and he said, ‘No, but my boss loves it,’ and within a week, we had 16 Marines down here playing golf with us.”

That golf trip to Palm Desert was repaid with an invitation to the Desert Winds Golf Course here aboard the Combat Center. It was over dinner after that round of golf that the question “How can we help the troops?” was asked. The ensuing conversation would eventually turn the group of well-meaning, retired neighbors into a successful state and federal charitable organization.

Less than one month later, those same volunteers who helped gather toys for tots, collected enough money to put together gift boxes and ship them off to Twentynine Palms Marines in Iraq.

“In each gift box, we included a list of everybody who contributed and their e-mail address,” Van Benthuysen said. “And all of us that summer started getting letters from Iraq.

“So as summer went on, we kept getting these letters,” he continued. “I said to Judy, ‘If we really got organized, we could make a difference.”

So, with Judy, his wife, and the help of some friends with law experience, he established AFAF.
To some, the direct results of this work may be hard to visualize, because they don’t always see charity in action. When Chaplain Starkey spoke at the Jan. 19 meeting, however, he attempted to bring sharp focus to that vision by describing a personal experience where AFAF helped a Marine family in need.

One child in this family of five needed regular medical attention, but one of the two cars they owned was broken down, he said. This created a complicated and expensive one-vehicle travel plan that sometimes left the wife and children at home without transportation.

“This family was in a critical situation, and the American Friends of our Armed Forces stepped up and got that car fixed so they could take care of that child,” Starkey told the assembled crowd. “It’s those types of situations that the finances you have been able to make available to our Marines and Sailors go to an absolutely worthy cause, and I thank you for that.”

“Thanks for appreciating us,” is what the chaplain passed at the meeting, and for almost all of the AFAF contributors, who are retired, a little thanks is all they need.

“Sometimes down here, it’s a resort environment,” Van Benthuysen explained. “People are going out to dinner, they’re playing golf, and you lose a little bit of contact with the real world. Let’s face it; this is a pretty nice way to live.

“When we go to the base…we’re really seeing the heroes,” he stated. “Like Chaplain Starkey said, he serves the servers, and that’s what we’re trying to do.”

To contact AFAF or to donate time, services or money, go to their Web site,