Posted by: lcowie | December 23, 2008

Supporting the Troops

What it means to support the troops

A look into the effects of letters and care packages

by Lesley Cowie

Justine Thurston bit her lip in an attempt to suppress the outburst of stinging tears. She nudged her way through the crowd of students and clumsily fell onto the closest bench in sight. She reread the daunting text message on her phone:

“Can you fly in tonight?”

Spc. Benjamin Bidon, Thurston’s boyfriend, had finally received his definitive schedule for deployment. He was leaving for Iraq four days sooner than Thurston had thought, and she vowed to be present for his departure.

Thurston had purchased a plane ticket to Fort Campbell, Ky., for Friday afternoon. Now those travel plans were obsolete. She booked a flight for that evening, Wed., Sept. 19. She decided that her fashion retail test would have to wait.

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The infantrymen of Fort Campbell, Ky., take a photo before making their way to the plane for their 15-month deployment.

Thurston and Bidon shared their tearful goodbyes the next day. Bidon’s face, a mixture of sorrow and fright, assured Thurston that her support was going to be vital for the next 15 months. She promised to do everything she could to support him and his mission.

Thurston now describes the incident as the saddest moment in her life. For her, Bidon’s emotional goodbye revealed the terror and reality of his job. Without Bidon, Thurston may not have been as affected by the Iraq War as she has been.

With these sentiments, many wonder if the average American has any obligation to show their gratitude to the military.

“Before I started dating someone in the military, I didn’t really think about our troops,” Kristine Edmundson said. “I guess I just didn’t think it was real or that it was something I [would] ever have to deal with…”

Recognizing the various levels of support

Since the establishment of the Iraq War in March 2003, 4,208 casualties have been confirmed. On average, 63 members of the military die every month. These military personnel span all ages, genders, ethnicities, locations and military branches.

Deployments arouse feelings of fear, sadness, excitement, anger and anxiety for military personnel. After extensive training, brave men and women leave their homes and families for long tours on foreign land. They encounter dangerous situations and see ghastly images that most Americans would never understand.

Showing support to the military encompasses both gratitude and encouragement. Sometimes it requires putting aside partisan beliefs to acknowledge the perilous conditions of war and those who fight in it.

“Regardless of one’s political ideology or opinions, we have a national tradition when it comes to supporting our deployed military,” said Ida Hägg, executive director of Adopt-a-Platoon. “It’s important to let our troops know that regardless of whether or not you personally believe we should be in Iraq or Afghanistan, the fact remains that when the call came to deploy, our volunteer troops didn’t question it. They simply went.”

Supporting the troops, however, has different meanings for different people. Some may define supporting the troops as sending as many care packages and letters as possible. Others may frame their support as a state of mind. During a war time, it is critical that Americans analyze this phrase and maintain their beliefs.

“Supporting the troops can be a mental, physical and/or emotional thing,” said Barbara Whitehead, North Carolina’s director of Give2theTroops. “From praying for God to surround our troops with his love, to feeling patriotic at the playing of the National Anthem, to collecting items for care packages and writing cards of support. It is just not being apathetic but actually putting action into the thoughts.”

This vehicle features a yellow ribbon adorned with an eagle, which stands for the airborne infantrymen.

This vehicle features a yellow ribbon adorned with an eagle, which stands for the airborne infantrymen.

Wearing the yellow ribbon

One of the most common forms of support is the yellow ribbon. Americans frequently adorn their vehicles with a multitude of ribbons, in support of a variety of causes. While yellow ribbons are an easy sign of support, they are often questioned for their effectiveness.

“Sometimes I think people just put them everywhere but don’t really know the reasoning behind them,” Pfc. Aaron Ward said.

Yellow ribbons represent support and pride for the military. Chelsea Hall, of Mooresville, believes they are a good thing if the profits go toward raising money and awareness for the efforts in Iraq. The ribbon, she says, is an easy and accessible way to support the troops.

“While we don’t expect recognition, we at least want to feel our efforts are appreciated,” Cpl. Gary Hoff said.

Writing one’s support

Deployed military personnel especially value letters from home. The personal touch of a letter is unmatched to any other form of support.

Pfc. Nick Blanc says receiving letters from home lets him know that his life means something to someone else.

While deployed, these men and women enjoy collecting familiar pieces of home. They say that letters break the monotony and help make the time pass faster.

Christine Jovenitti, founder of Letters from Home, says that letters are equivalent to holding the hands of the people who wrote them. Both Jovenitti and Whitehead believe letters are the most personal form of support.

“It provides a touch of home and a feeling that they are not forgotten,” Whitehead said. “Everyone feels good to receive an actual letter, especially in this age of electronic communication. A letter always seems to have a personal touch, a more caring touch.”

Anyone can write a letter to a serviceman or woman. This includes friends, families and strangers. Soldiers are grateful to receive letters, even when they come from people they do not know.

“A lot of people I don’t know will send cards that get me pretty emotional,” Staff Sgt. Jon Oldham said. “Kids get me choked up.”

Writing a letter can be just as simple as purchasing a yellow ribbon. However, letters exude additional support and actually reach those who fight in the war. The more encouragement that Americans provide, the more confidence the soldiers receive.

Spc. Nick Dechene makes a few final phone calls before deploying to Iraq.

Spc. Nick Dechene makes a few final phone calls before deploying to Iraq.

Sending care packages

For some soldiers, care packages are the ultimate form of military support. Because the troops are fighting on foreign land, they need familiar items from home to boost their morale.

“I think it’s important because the guys over there are doing a hard job,” said Reilly Quick, the wife of an Army sergeant at Fort Bragg. “They see things and do things that some people don’t even know is really happening. It’s hard to be away from home and your loved ones. I think that sending things helps them go on from day to day…I think it’s just a good boost for them to get. Normally it doesn’t matter what you send…from candy to something big. All that matters to them is that it came from home.”

According to Quick, these unexpected boxes remind military personnel that friends and family at home are thinking about them. It does not matter how often they receive boxes or how many items they receive. These signs of support always elicit appreciative responses from soldiers.

“It brings your spirit up knowing someone on the outside cares enough to take the time and money and effort to send something over to us,” Sgt. 1st Class Christopher Broesamle said.

During the time that Spc. John Gilmore was deployed in Iraq, Taylor LaBaw sent him eight packages. She said she tried to send something every two to four weeks and generally spent about 30 dollars on each package.

Edmundson says she sends care packages so her boyfriend, Pfc. Charlie Fresco, knows he is not forgotten.

“I send them because I can’t do anything else for him,” Edmundson said. “I can’t call him and tell him my day, so I’ll write it in a letter. If I see a movie he would like, I buy it. Little things like that make them think of home and that there are people who love them and can’t wait for their safe return home.”

Some of the most common care package items include baby wipes, candy, magazines, and hygiene items. Soldiers use these items for a variety of purposes.

Sgt. Tom Ferguson says he uses baby wipes to clean his body and his weapon. He likes receiving snacks because he does not know when he will be able to get a real meal. When he receives candy, Ferguson gives it to the children. After four years of deployments, Ferguson recalls receiving over 300 packages.

Airman 1st Class Ryan McKinney playfully requests random items to satisfy his sense of humor. “Water guns are a godsend when it’s 135 degrees outside,” he said.

Dechene takes a look at his family before walking toward the plane.

Dechene takes a look at his family before walking toward the plane.

Raising expectations

Military personnel appreciate the time and money that Americans spend on sending them packages.

Receiving mail is a significant step toward confidence and determination. However, soldiers never expect anything in the mail. They hope for American support in whatever way they can obtain it.

Ward says he would like to see more people take an interest in the military’s efforts. “A hand shake, ask us how we’re doing. Let us tell some stories,” he said.

LaBaw acknowledges the various ways to show support. She says that people can join groups, talk to the families, have a yellow ribbon and be appreciative of what the troops are doing. The most important thing to do, she says, is to fight for what you believe in, just like the troops do.

Many friends and family members to military personnel believe that it is important to support those who are fighting in the war, regardless of partisanship.

“For a soldier to trudge back to his tent empty-handed while battle buddies eagerly read letters and open packages from home only adds to the loneliness for many of our troops who do not have a system of support from home,” Hägg said.

Hägg’s organization, Adopt-a-Platoon, creates an opportunity for people to support military personnel in any way they want. Opportunities range from one-time help and pen pals to adopting a soldier or a platoon.

Quick, whose husband Jason came back from Iraq in July, believes supporting the troops should be an ongoing effort, even for friends and families. She says it is important to remind the troops how appreciative Americans are for their sacrifices.

“Even after [my husband] gets out, I’ll still keep in touch with those that are in,” Quick said. “I’ll still send packages, and I’ll still wear my yellow ribbons. I’ll still wear red every Friday to represent the blood of the ones we lost and the ones that are still fighting until they all come home.”

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