What would it take to feel remembered during the holidays, on a battlefield or base half a world away?
Would it take some favorite sweets and treats from back home? Warm clothes against an Afghanistan winter? Perhaps a holiday card, hand-drawn by Napa children?
Sunday morning, nearly 170 people gathered at CrossWalk Community Church to box up care packages for U.S. service members overseas, packages containing all those items and more. For some of those volunteers, the packing bee was about more than easing troops’ lives far from home — it was about showing their thanks during a season when the separation from family and friends feels most acute.
The event was the seventh annual Christmastime packing campaign in Napa by Operation: With Love From Home, which since 2007 has gathered and mailed the gift boxes for troops stationed in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere. The nonprofit group also organizes annual package and donation drives before Valentine’s Day and at midsummer.
At the front of the horseshoe-shaped chain of white tables, one line of helpers passed instant noodles, cookies, shampoo and lip balm from blue plastic totes to another queue of people placing them into the mailing boxes. Near the end of the line, other volunteers added mementos meant to touch a service member’s heart — Christmas and thank-you cards made by local schoolchildren.
Such finishing touches are often the most affecting ones for soldiers far from home, said Steve Husong, a volunteer at the Napa event who served in Afghanistan twice and Iraq once as an Army staff sergeant.
“The fact that it’s handwritten (shows) someone thought of us, thought enough to write something and send it to us,” he said. “It can make a bad day pretty good.”
Joining the greeting cards in the care packages were 3-by-5-inch U.S. flags packed by 88-year-old Eleanor Miller, once a flight nurse at an Air Force base in Anchorage, Alaska, during the Korean War.
“It’s just to let the military know they’re not forgotten, that we still think of them,” said Miller, who had folded the flags in Yountville with fellow residents at the Veterans Home of California.
“We get letters and email back” from the recipients, she said during a brief break from packing duty. “They tell me some of them put the flags on their hat, some put it in their pocket, and some of them put them up on the wall and look at it first thing when they get up in the morning.”
Most of the packing brigade was bundled in jackets and sweaters against the morning’s subfreezing chill, but one volunteer stood out in her camouflage uniform.
Kathe Boone, an Army staff sergeant from Vallejo, was pitching in for the first time after two tours in Afghanistan — hoping to comfort fellow troops as she herself had been comforted while on duty.
“It’s been a really awesome time here — it’s nice to know that you’re giving back,” said Boone, who returned to the U.S. from the Middle East in mid-2011.
“I got care packages at Christmas both times and it was a welcome treat,” she said as her 7-year-old son Desmond trailed her. “It’s humbling to know someone out there you don’t know cared enough to write a card and put a package together. You feel like there’s a guardian out there looking for you.”
The morning left a deep sense of satisfaction for one volunteer, an Army veteran who recalled feeling so left behind while serving in Vietnam that he took an unusual step to call attention to his combat buddies.
“I took out a classified ad in the Los Angeles Times saying, ‘Hey, the water here tastes awful — send over more Kool-Aid!’” Jeff Dreyer said, able to smile at the memory more than four decades later. “When you’re over there you start missing the stupidest stuff, like when your lips are practically falling off and you don’t have any ChapStick.
“I’ve been on the other end of care packages, and that’s why I’m here today. It all comes together here; it’s a heartwarming thing.”
Less than a week before packing day, Operation: With Love From Home’s coordinator, Liz Alessio, had said the group was short of donated goods and needed another $3,000 to cover postage costs, which run to $12.95 per box. But as the minutes passed Sunday, she became as much cheerleader as organizer, taking to the microphone to call out the number of care packages finished.
“The community came through again! Most of the donations came through the last week,” Alessio, a community benefits coordinator at Queen of the Valley Medical Center, had said earlier that morning with a mixture of relief and pleasure.
Six hundred parcels by 11:30 a.m. became 900 a half-hour later, to a round of volunteers’ cheers and claps at each milestone. When the packing bee finally ended about 12:30, more than 1,100 boxes formed a wall at one end of the basketball court.
Shortly afterward, the helpers would load the care packages onto a moving truck to a volunteer’s home, and thence to the Trancas Street post office early Monday morning.
But there would be one more step for the packing party. As the crowd bent their heads and grew quiet, a woman led the volunteers in prayer — in hopes that the gift boxes would reach the troops, and that the troops would find their way home.