By Army National Guard Sgt. Francis O’Brien
Virginia National Guard
“We are grateful to all of the organizations and people that provided care packages for us while we were overseas,” said Army 1st Lt. Michael Kane, executive officer, Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 116th Infantry Brigade Combat Team.
“We are an Army that is fighting for the rights of the Afghan people while another Army back home – an Army of supporters and well wishers – takes care of our families,” he said. “To quote author Cleveland Amory: ‘What this world needs is a new kind of army – the army of the kind.’ Our supporters have been just that.”
Dominion Virginia Power has been one of the most generous contributors to the 116th with the most popular items with soldiers being pillows, sheets and blankets. Dominion’s volunteer-run Troop Support Program has supported thousands of deployed service members in Iraq and Afghanistan with more than 6,000 care packages. Employees have also donated postage, raising $70,000 for the program.
Bev Robinson is the volunteer Troop Support Coordinator for Dominion Power in Virginia and she includes a letter with donations, writing: “Please stay safe and thanks so much for the many sacrifices you are making for us each and every day. We care about you!”
“Dominion Power is always a very big supporter,” said Army Maj. David Wheeler, 116th Brigade S-1 personnel officer.
Wheeler, who has 22 years of service split between Virginia and West Virginia Army National Guards is on his second deployment. His wife, Kara, is head of the Family Readiness Group for the 116th “Stonewall Brigade.” Family Readiness Groups, staffed by volunteers, play a vital role in deployments by coordinating information, resources and support to both families and deployed service members. Care packages are but one of the many ways FRGs support the Virginia Army National Guard.
“She did this the last time we deployed,” Wheeler said of his wife. “She wants to make sure everyone is taken care of because not all Soldiers get care packages. The first shipment was 21 boxes of Girl Scout Cookies.
“Kara started a second go-round back in October,” he said standing in front of a wall covered with hand-drawn letters and cards done by school children from all over the U.S. “She went through various folks and corporations to get little knickknacks for us. She created holiday stockings for everyone and then sent them in care packages. Next week, I plan on setting up a table to distribute the stockings to soldiers. Getting stuff to the SNAP terminal guys will be hard,” he added, pointing to the shoulder-high wall of boxes.”
Small teams of 116th communications technician soldiers, “SNAP guys,” are scattered at smaller FOBs throughout the province such as Athgar, Shamulzai and Mescall. The smaller FOBs and combat outposts are what most civilians think of when they picture a hardship posting with soldiers sorely in need of care packages and pen pals. Most volunteer organizations don’t make that distinction – they’re happy to help any service member in a combat zone.
“We appreciate deeply your sacrifice in serving our country,” wrote Sonja Hardison, Director of American Military Missions. “We pray for you daily that you return home safely.”
American Military Missions – a non-profit volunteer organization- was started about six years ago by Hardison who was supporting her grandson deployed to Iraq with the Army National Guard. AMM care packages are a regular feature at the entry control point used by 116th soldiers who take what they need as they go about the duty day.
Donations are not just limited to care packages.
“My father-in-law is sending me a real Christmas tree,” said Army Staff Sgt. Aaron Peters, a supply sergeant on his second deployment. “He always volunteers to send trees to troops and families that can’t afford one.”
Yates Christmas Trees & Landscaping in Boone, N.C., has sent out over 5,000 trees as part of their “Trees to Troops” program, including one to retired Army Gen. David Petraeus. Peters received a similar tree during his deployment to Iraq with the HHC, 116th IBCT in 2007-2008.
Despite the length of the wars and withdrawal of troops from both theaters, the number of volunteer groups has remained strong. They occupy different niches in region, organization, size, mission and membership but share a common pride and love for U.S. troops. For example:
“People used to just walk up to me at home and say thank you for your service. I appreciated that,” said Army Spc. Christopher Loney a field artillery automated tactical data systems specialist.
Many charities have websites where Soldiers can register to be ‘adopted’ by local groups. Some donations are coordinated by unit chaplains who are able to tap into a network of resources both secular and faith-based. And some donations, like good fortune or miraculous timing, defy explanation.
“CAT (Caterpillar) Financial out of Nashville, Tennessee has been very supportive,” said Army Sgt. 1st Class Michael Pierpaoli, a Brigade Targeting non-commissioned officer on his third deployment. “Somebody knew somebody and they got in touch with us out of the blue.”
Because the 116th is on a NATO International Security Force mission, the contents of care packages are sometimes shared with the coalition partners of Combined Team Zabul. There are currently more than 1,300 Romanian troops in Zabul province in support of Operation Enduring Freedom, such as the 1st Mechanized Brigade, which traces its history back to 100 B.C. Romanian soldiers are particularly fond of socks and t-shirts. Local Afghan children, who respond enthusiastically to U.S. foot patrols in Qalat, are grateful for anything.
“W.R. O’Neal Electric, Inc. donated soccer balls for local kids,” said Army Maj. William O’Neal of his father’s company. O’Neal – who is on his second deployment – has a passion for reaching out to the local Afghan community. Pens are especially prized by local children as status symbols denoting a desire to improve their lives through education.
Having just finished celebrating Thanksgiving, many 116th Soldiers have taken time to reflect on what they’re thankful for. Soon they will celebrate Hanukkah and Christmas – a season of generous gift giving. The gifts that 116th soldiers have received aren’t just care packages, but the prayers, patriotism, support and generosity of an extended American family; an army of the kind. At the end of the duty day, what matters to soldiers are the love of their families, the support of their nation, and anything that makes the separation of deployments bearable.