Features

Aid and comfort

War on Terror | Troops fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan need support, and several groups are helping Americans give it

Issue: "Daniel of the Year 2004," Dec. 11, 2004

To a squared-away Marine Corps officer, there's nothing worse than waste. But that's exactly what Albert Renteria saw while serving during Operation Desert Storm. His job then: "Moving beans and bullets," catchy shorthand for transport of the tons of provisions and materiel that flow from the states to the trenches during wartime. But the mammoth task left little manpower to transport cargo nearly as precious: thousands of care packages and letters of support addressed to "any soldier" from the American people.

During Desert Storm, Americans' generosity so overwhelmed the military logistical system-which employs no separate mechanism for shipping care packages-that Mr. Renteria estimates only 20 percent of donations made it to the troops. In 1990 and 1991, he watched in frustration as cartons of cookies, snacks, blankets, games, sundries, and letters scrawled by schoolchildren piled up, undelivered.

How many cartons? "Imagine a warehouse the size of a large airplane hangar filled to the rim," Mr. Renteria said.

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In 2001, Mr. Renteria, by then retired, decided that the same thing wouldn't happen to troops fighting the war on terror. So he founded Operation Interdependence (OI), a "civilian-to-military delivery system" that collects, packs, and routes donated comfort items to overseas troops without diverting military logistical resources. Since its founding, OI has delivered to overseas troops more than half a million "C-Rats," or "civilian rations," small, practical packages that actually wind up in soldiers' hands instead of rotting in a warehouse.

OI (www.oidelivers.org) is one of many groups, from grassroots to government-aided, pouring out support for troops-and their families.

This year 154,000 soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines will spend Christmas in Iraq and Afghanistan, many huddled in tanks, Bradleys, and charred urban ruins, some wondering whether anyone back home appreciates their service. Stateside, many military families, suddenly transformed into single-parent households, are struggling with money and daily living.

The Goycochea family of El Cajon, Calif., is among those trying to help. Allan Goycochea is a retired Army officer who was bayoneted in the back in Korea and gave up an eye in Vietnam. His wife Bonnell volunteers as an OI coordinator, helping to pick, sort, and pack donations of snacks, CDs, handheld games, toiletries, letters, cards, and other small items.

The Goycocheas, including two school-age children, together write 50 letters a month to troops via OI. The troops appreciate "something-anything-from home," Mrs. Goycochea said. "It really helps them to know that they're being thought of and remembered."

Other aid and service organizations, such as the American Red Cross, American Legion, VFW, Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, and school and church groups, now funnel donations through OI's 11 national distribution centers.

The group is working to marry corporate cash and donations with the efforts of citizen volunteers, Mr. Renteria said. For example, the National Association of Convenience Stores (NACS) recently anted up enough snacks and sundries to reach 24,000 troops. The Payne Auto Group, a Texas firm, then agreed to donate to OI $30 per car it sold in October. That turned out to be $18,000, enough to pay to ship the NACS goods to Iraq after OI volunteers packed them into quart-size plastic zipper bags, 50 bags per carton.

To the practical-minded Mr. Renteria, even the zipper bags don't go to waste: "They help troops protect their most precious possessions, pictures of their family," he said.

It was family that spurred Nadine Gulit and Sheryl Sheaffer to launch Operation Support Our Troops (OSOT), a grassroots group in the Puget Sound area of Washington state. In January 2003, Mrs. Sheaffer's son Scott, a combat engineer serving with the Army's elite 10th Mountain Division, called her to complain. "All we're seeing at the bases and on the news is war protesters," Mr. Sheaffer said. "Where are you guys?"

So they organized their first pro-troop rally on a freeway overpass outside Camp Murray, Wash., in January 2003. OSOT's effort continued to grow. By November 2003, when the president activated the 81st Reserve-the largest reserve call-up since World War II-8,000 pro-military citizens showed up with bunting, banners, flags, and signs to rally with OSOT.

"It was spectacular," said Mrs. Gulit, 73, who in June received the President's Volunteer Service Award from USA Freedom Corps from President Bush.

In OSOT's neck of the woods, protesters have largely given up, but the grassroots group has forged ahead with numerous support-the-troops projects. Last month, the group finished sending 7,444 Christmas packages-2,500 more than last year-to "adopted" units in Iraq. Included in the packages: more than 9,000 hand-stitched, goody-filled Christmas stockings donated by people across the nation, who learned of OSOT through its website, www.operation-support-our-troops.org.

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