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Wednesday, April 1, 2009 08:21 pm

Support the troops

Nonprofits and the National Guard show appreciation for those who serve

U.S. Army soldiers from the 1144th Transportation Battalion, Illinois Army National Guard conduct non-lethal weapons training at Camp Atterbury, Ind. The soldiers are being trained by U.S. Army Operation Warrior Trainers.

On March 19, the sixth anniversary of the Iraq war, Adjutant General William Enyart asked Illinoisans to reflect on the sacrifices made by the men and women who serve in the Illinois National Guard.

“While opinions on the war may vary, what we cannot question is the sense of duty, honor and selfless service each Illinois solider and airman upholds,” Enyart said in a released statement. “Remember to thank them for what they do.”

There are 13,500 soldiers and airmen in the Illinois National Guard. More than 3,000 currently serve in Afghanistan, and 100 more serve in Iraq.

Several nonprofit organizations around the state have answered the call to support these troops and their families. As U.S. military operations progress, they’ve stepped up their efforts to boost the morale of deployed soldiers through care packages and thank-yous. Other efforts help families left behind by moms and dads sent to Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as those soldiers returning from combat.

Volunteers like Patti Smith, the executive director of Central Illinois Proud Families of Marines, also run grassroots PR campaigns to remind the community that even though the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are unpleasant, they’re not over.

“There are still many of our young men and women serving in harm’s way to defend the freedom that we enjoy every day,” she says. “We need to understand that support for them is going to be long-term.

“That’s not just for our troops. That’s for our wounded. That’s for our veterans. That’s for our families who have sacrificed a young one for our freedom.”

In 2004, Smith’s two sons, Jesse and Josey, enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps within six months of each other. Smith started out as a supportive “Marine mom” and began meeting other Marine parents. She formed CIPFM in Peoria as a support group for families with serving sons and daughters.

Her 23-year-old son Josey was deployed to Ramadi, Iraq to serve his first tour of duty in December 2005. Smith didn’t like the idea of receiving Christmas presents while her son lived and worked in a war zone, so she and her husband instead launched a plan to outfit Josey and his 40-member platoon with gifts. The Smiths collected items and stored them in their garage until they had enough presents for 200 service members.

Since then, Smith says, donations to “Operation Santa” have increased annually by 100 percent. In 2006 CIPFM sent 10,000 gift-filled stockings to troops overseas, and in 2007, the organization sent more than 23,000. Last year’s total — 35,000 stockings — astounded Smith.

“We went from a support group to this project that just took over,” she says. “We got so many volunteers who wanted to do more. It was no longer just Marine parents, but everyone.”

Girl Scouts, church groups, schoolchildren, nursing home residents and volunteers from across Illinois and other various states create stockings year-round for Operation Santa. These volunteers join with other community organizations to collect travel-sized hot cocoa and cold drink packets, instant soup, granola bars, toothpaste and toothbrushes.

Jeanne Lee, a Springfield CIPFM volunteer, sews stockings for Operation Santa and solicits help from women in local chapters of the Home and Community Education Association. She spends nearly 100 hours of her time on the project (including a trip to Peoria for the stocking sewing kickoff day in October), but wants to increase her recruiting efforts in the capital city.

“My dad was a Pearl Harbor survivor,” Lee says. “My brother is a Vietnam veteran. It just seems like something I should be doing.”

Thanks to the help of volunteers like Lee, Smith says, Operation Santa has grown into the Midwest’s largest stocking drive and ranks high on the list of national drives. CIPFM networks with Army and Navy chaplains to locate gift recipients and also accepts service member names and addresses from families across the U.S. Stockings now go beyond Iraq and Afghanistan to troops in countries like Japan, Kuwait and South Korea.

Donna Broderick, left, receives $1,300 from Citizen S.A.M. executive director Patti Smith. The money went toward a new furnace for Broderick, whose husband is deployed for the fourth time. The organization also played Santa at Christmastime by giving the

In addition to Operation Santa, Smith heads another CIPFM initiative called Citizen S.A.M. (Support for America’s Military). The organization, comprised of volunteers from 48 states and three countries, offers support to service members through various initiatives.

Knitters fashion helmet-liners and neck coolers to keep soldiers comfortable during sub-zero winter wind chills and scorching summer heat. The organization has shipped more than 22,000 helmet-liners and 52,000 neck coolers overseas. Crafters also crochet scarves and hand-tie or sew quilts that are used to warm wounded soldiers.

Citizen S.A.M. partners with Snowball Express, another national nonprofit, to provide financial assistance and support to children who have lost a parent during active service. The organization’s volunteers collect items for veteran’s hospitals and even work with pet stores to send dog beds, food and treats to overseas K-9 units.

Smith says she’s seen organizations that specialize in one or two areas, but for CIPFM, it’s about offering a “more rounded menu to include more people.”

“We just want to give people an opportunity to give back to their country by helping those who serve,” she says.

Deb Rickert, the founder of Operation Support Our Troops-Illinois, Inc. in Naperville, shares a similar start-up story. In the wake of Sept. 11, her son, Dan, decided to attend the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.

“Like many families, we became a military family overnight,” Rickert says. “Really — it was almost that dramatic.”

Her son’s choice opened her eyes to the decisions that young people were making across the country. Coming from the Vietnam era, Rickert says, she didn’t want to see support wane for soldiers as it did in the past.

She began sending care packages filled with snacks, toiletries and other “creature comforts” to service members she knew in Iraq and Afghanistan. After a couple of months, Rickert teamed up with Joanne Bradna, another military mom, and the pair founded OSOTIL in 2003 as a state branch of a national organization that supports deployed troops.

Rickert maintains that they’re still in their infancy as an organization, but in the past six years, they’ve upgraded from her dining room table to two warehouses and sent more than 250 tons of goods to troops overseas. They’ve partnered with CSI: New York star Gary Sinise and his Lt. Dan Band four years in a row for the annual Rockin’ with the Troops benefit concert in Cantigny Park in Wheaton (this year’s concert is set for July 18). The organization has even initiated a family resource and support team to help local families of the fallen.

Churches, schools and community organizations organize collections for OSOTIL based on a provided top-10 list of most requested items from the troops. In addition, the organization sets up drop-off locations throughout the Chicago area and accepts donations at its warehouses.

Volunteers sort through the donations — peanut butter, beef jerky, coffee singles, insect repellant and heat wraps make the list — and package them for shipping. Sometimes they get to include special donations, like refried beans and salsa, from local companies.

After Rickert’s son was deployed to Iraq last August, he told her: “I fall asleep and dream of being in the United States, being in Naperville and walking down the street.”

“When they open that box, it brings them so much comfort to have a taste of home,” Rickert says. “That’s what we try to do.”

Gary Sinise playing bass in the Lt. Dan Band performs at Rockin� For The Troops 2008. Sinise and his band performed the past two years for a sell-out crowd of 10,000 attendees. Last year�s event raised funds for a range of organizations including the

Volunteers also include letters of encouragement, as well as notes seeking the names, addresses and deployment dates of other military serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. Rickert’s mailing list currently includes 2,000 service members; OSOTIL will continue to send them care packages until they return home.

Even though current economic conditions hurt collections, Rickert says, she’s still seen retirees ask for donations instead of gifts at their retirement parties and family members give up birthday or holiday gifts in order to send care packages. It’s these acts of generosity that help fulfill OSOTIL’s two-fold mission.

“It is not only to support the morale and well-being of the troops,” Rickert says, “but always to keep the awareness in the minds of the citizens that our troops are still there. Our goal is to not go out and buy all the things that we send, but to involve the community.”

In the future, Rickert hopes to mobilize support in the Springfield area. Establishing drop-off locations would be easy, she says — recruiting a trucking company to transfer donations to Naperville once or twice a month might take more work.

While Smith and Rickert run operations to support troops overseas, other Illinois organizations focus on their families.

Last June Todd Schorle launched the Illinois chapter of Operation Homefront, a national organization that provides emergency support to families left behind during deployment. The organization manages a statewide database of mechanics, electricians, plumbers, movers and even “computer rescuers” who offer pro bono or discounted services to military families. Volunteers also provide food, baby supplies and furniture, as well as financial assistance to help pay mortgage, rent and utility bills.

In just eight months, Schorle’s organization has worked with military personnel to find and serve more than 1,000 families. He’s heard the stories of those left without a breadwinner or someone to fix things around the house. Recently, he worked to install a wheelchair ramp for a deployed service member’s disabled son.

“It’s really a struggle, and I don’t think that most people see that or understand that as much as they should,” Schorle says.

Since military families are spread across Illinois, Schorle says, he launched a gift card drive in December so community members and businesses could quickly donate to their cause. The organization collected more than 2,500 gift cards for such stores as Wal-Mart, Home Depot, Target and Pep Boys.

Illinois’ Operation Homefront also works with Dollar Tree to conduct toy drives. In 2008 more than 195,000 toys were collected for Illinois military children. Through April 6, the organization will again partner with Dollar Tree to collect items for Easter baskets. Shoppers in Springfield and other cities in Illinois can visit any store location to make contributions or purchase baskets, chocolate bunnies, candy, or plush toys. Local military units will use the items to build Easter baskets for families in need.

Operation Homefront has hit the ground running in Illinois, Schorle says, providing assistance to families during the state’s “largest deployment since World War II.” Like the other organizations, Operation Homefront also seeks Springfield coordinators and volunteers to continue bridging the gap between deployed troops and their families at home.

“We are a vehicle,” Schorle says. “We can calm the nerves of some of those soldiers who are overseas, so they don’t have to worry about their families at home.”

The Illinois National Guard offers its own assistance to deployed service members and their families, particularly during reintegration. Returning soldiers and airmen are required to enroll in the Yellow Ribbon program, initiated in 2007 to help service members transition back home.

Illinois National Guard Specialist Samontae Hubbard says soldiers live in war zones for so long that they become adapted to their environments. The Illinois National Guard calls on local agencies to help returning service members evaluate events that have occurred during deployment.

“You hear a lot of cases of soldiers coming back home, and they’re different,” Hubbard says. “We want to take care of our people. That’s what we’re about.”

The Illinois National Guard also conducts Reintegration Family Academies. Families meet with representatives from the Illinois Department of Veterans Affairs and the Veteran’s Health Administration to prepare for their deployed service member’s return. They can also speak with private counselors and attend workshops that focus on marriage after deployment or the challenge of reuniting soldiers with their children.

Hubbard says the two programs have made a huge impact on reintegrating soldiers with their families: “Most soldiers have been deployed more than once and said they wished they had the program when they came home the first time.”

Contact Amanda Robert at arobert@illinoistimes.com.

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