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.
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.
On the opposite coast, crowds of volunteers turn out regularly both to rally troops headed into harm's way and to welcome them home. Crowds of military veterans and just-plain-folks arrange to meet and greet every scheduled planeload of service members that touches down in Bangor, Maine.
"Someone is here for every flight no matter what time of day," greeter Al Dall, 74, told Edward Lee Pitts, a Chattanooga Free Press reporter embedded with Tennessee's 278th Regimental Combat Team. The 278th ran head-on into Bangor's patriotic hospitality as it shipped out to Iraq late last month. As the soldiers deplaned for their last stateside stop, about 40 locals met them on the concourse, cheering and clapping, holding aloft banners that called the troops heroes, Mr. Pitts reported.
"Y'all sure are friendly up here," said Staff Sgt. John Brown, 45, of Huntsville, Tenn., as he shook a greeter's hand. "This has about teared me up."
The volunteers passed out dozens of cell phones and invited soldiers to make a free last call home. Nearby, in a room stocked with free cookies and drinks, a banner on the wall proclaimed that 721 flights bearing 130,747 troops and two dogs had enjoyed Maine's hospitality on their way to Iraq or Afghanistan.
Maine also is among eight states that are teaming government with private donors to support the families of National Guard and reserve troops deployed to war zones. Maine, California, Delaware, Michigan, South Carolina, Rhode Island, and Wyoming have all passed legislation to launch versions of the "Military Family Relief Fund (MFRF)," a model originated in Illinois. Funding in Illinois was to come from private donors and optional check-in-the-box donations generated by state income tax returns.
"Then Iraq happened and the money was needed now," said Eric Schuller, senior policy advisor for Illinois Lt. Gov. Pat Quinn, whose office administers the family aid program (www.operationhomefront.org). More than half of the state's National Guard personnel and 40 percent of its military reserves are now serving on active duty. Many have suffered pay cuts as high as one-third.
Illinois lawmakers approved $5 million to fund one-time grants of between $500 and $3,000 to the families of deployed National Guardsmen and reservists. Since then, the fund has grown by $203,000 (from tax check-off donations) and another $150,000 in private donations. So far, Illinois has given out $2.4 million in grants from the fund to families like the Hortons of Aurora, Ill.
Joshua Horton, 28, an Aurora police officer and Marine Corps veteran, signed up for the reserves after 9/11. In June 2004 his unit was activated. Sgt. Horton could've applied to stay home: His wife Taunacy, already mother to two children, was pregnant with quintuplets.
But the Hortons decided Joshua should honor his commitment. In September, he shipped out to Iraq. On Oct. 7, while he was conducting a house-to-house search, a grenade exploded near Sgt. Horton, shattering an arm and a leg. On Oct. 11, while he lay in a hospital bed in Germany, Mrs. Horton, 27 weeks pregnant, gave birth to three girls and two boys.
Sgt. Horton is now home, recuperating from his injuries. One of the Horton quints, Addyson, a baby girl, passed away on Oct. 30. Throughout their ordeal, the community and the MFRF have rallied behind them. Last week, Mrs. Horton told WORLD that the grant of $500 they received "was the first help that was offered to us."
After reading about the Hortons in the newspaper, Eric Schuller called Mrs. Horton on behalf of Lt. Gov. Quinn. One of Mr. Schuller's first questions to this military family was one that, during wartime, should be universal: "How can we help you and what do you need?"