Treat The Troops Southern Style: Giving Back to Those Who Protect Our Country By Erica Schmidt

Sgt. Robert Harris was in the middle of a seven-month deployment as part of the U.S. Marines. He and the other 12 men in his squad would spend long periods of time out on patrol in small, secluded military bases in the middle of Afghanistan before returning to a larger, more populated base. They would stay in enclosures surrounded by tall sand-filled HESCO barriers, waking up every morning at sunrise and eating breakfast, sometimes in the chow hall if they happened to be on a base with that luxury and sometimes eating oatmeal cooked in a canteen over a fire. They would work out and then go out on patrol in the desert under the hot sun, returning at sundown to sleep before doing it all again the following day. In the middle of the desert away from the more populated bases, Robert and his squad would be without any connections to the outside world.

One time the men were out on patrol for a month before returning back to the more populated base. Upon finally returning to base the men walked in to find stacks of hand-addressed care packages and letters piled on their beds, a month’s worth of mail that the other squads had been holding for them. It was like Christmas for Robert and the rest of the squad as they tore open their mail, digging through boxes full of food and gifts from home and reading the words written to them by loved ones back in the United States.

While much of the communication received by the men was from friends and family at home, several of the care packages that arrived at the base were addressed to the squad from a group called Treat the Troops. These packages contained homemade cookies, packaged snacks like beef jerky or crackers, and letters from complete strangers thanking the men for their service, wishing them well and sending love and prayers from back home. While Robert and others like him were lucky to have such a huge support system in their friends and family back at home, there were also soldiers in the squad who did not have such a support system. Some of the men didn’t receive many care packages from home, so the boxes from Treat the Troops came as a huge morale boost. To soldiers under constant stress in a foreign country thousands of miles from home, the packages were a gleam of hope in the middle of their deployment.

When they were stationed on a more populated base, Robert and his squad would receive word once in a while that a mail truck was on its way. When they heard this, the men would watch and wait all week for the truck to come. When the giant delivery truck finally did arrive, the soldiers would rush out to greet it and claim their mail. And time and time again the truck would deliver care packages addressed to the squad from Treat the Troops.

Robert and the other men in his squad were a few of the hundreds of soldiers who have received care packages from the Southern Style branch of Treat the Troops, a nationwide organization. The group was formed in 1990 by Jeanette Cram and began with a small group of her friends baking and packing cookies out of Jeanette’s Hilton Head, South Carolina house. The effort grew larger and expanded to include many other chapters in different locations across the United States.

The Southern Style branch of the organization is a chapter of Treat the Troops founded in 2012 by Linda Jones. Linda had been involved in another chapter of Treat the Troops that met out of the Forsyth County Public Library, but it eventually ran out of time and energy and the branch was dissolved. Crushed by the chapter’s disbandment, Linda reached out to Jeanette to express her disappointment. Jeanette suggested that Linda start her own branch with the founder’s blessing and no ties to the former Cumming branch. Linda decided to take on the challenge, and created her new chapter of the group: Treat the Troops - Southern Style.

Linda and the volunteers in her group gather names and addresses from friends and family members of deployed soldiers, as well as from soldiers like Robert who have returned home but have friends who are still deployed overseas.

With so many names of soldiers to send packages to, paperwork is a large hurdle Treat the Troops has to clear in order to make sure each box arrives at its destination. The post office requires that each package contain a shipping label with the detailed name, title and address of the soldier who will receive it. Every package must also be accompanied by a customs form, once again detailing the address and return address and also containing a description of what is in the package. As Treat the Troops - Southern Style has grown, so has the number of packages they are able to send, reaching a grand total of 9,079 boxes packed and shipped between August 2012 and April 2019. This, in turn, leads to a growing number of customs forms and shipping labels to be completed, a task that requires several people to ensure it is completed in time.

The leadership of the chapter holds a paperwork meeting about a week before the official packing. The group meets at 10 a.m. at Linda’s house to prepare the forms and address labels before the night of the packing. Nan Meadows arrives first. Nan, a retired schoolteacher, painstakingly fills out each of the hundreds of customs forms to accompany the boxes, a task that takes her between 15 and 25 hours to complete. Nan enters Linda’s house wearing a black jacket with the Treat the Troops logo on the front and carrying a plastic box full of the customs forms, each one filled out in her neat, slanted handwriting.

Carolyn Hyman, wearing a gray Snoopy sweatshirt, arrives a few minutes after Nan. She pulls a shoebox out of her navy tote bag containing all of the shipping labels she has filled out in advance.

Linda, in her gray t-shirt with an American flag on the front, putters about her kitchen preparing food and drinks for the group. She pours a cup of tea for Nan and two cups of coffee for herself and Carolyn before the group sits down around the small table in the kitchen, the morning sunlight filtering through the windows and onto the stacks of customs forms and labels in the middle of the three women.

Linda flips open a pink notebook filled with neat, handwritten columns listing off the names of the soldiers who will be receiving the boxes, how many people are on base with each contact soldier, and how many boxes will be sent to each place. Carolyn and Nan have filled out the shipping labels and customs forms according to this information.

Linda plops a stack of printed-out emails containing more details about each soldier in the center of the table, picks up the first one and reads off the name of the soldier and how many boxes will be sent to him. Nan rifles through the customs forms in her shoebox until she finds the right ones and passes them to Carolyn, who adds her shipping label and hands both to Linda. Linda paperclips them together and places them on the side of the table, depositing the email facedown on a little green foldout table beside her chair.

The women slip into a rhythm, listing off names and swiftly combining the forms with the labels for each box. Stack after stack of papers is passed in a semicircle around the table, from Nan to Carolyn to Linda, who secures them together. She binds one particularly large stack together with a thick rubber band.

As Linda flips through email after email, each one adopts the personality of the soldier whose name it holds.

“We’ve been sending to this guy a long time,” Linda comments, gazing fondly at an email printout as if it is an old friend.

Every email prompts a different story. “This one is from the wife of a special ops soldier. She’s asking me to send enough boxes for the rest of the men on his base because most of them don’t usually receive anything,” Linda says about one.

“Oh, this one is for Eddie,” Carolyn smiles down at another name. “He always wrote us letters asking for his favorite chocolate cookies, but now he’s asking us to send him oatmeal raisin.”

“I think you and Eddie are getting a little too close!” Linda jokes, prompting laughter from the other two.

Almost two hours later, the women have finally worked their way down the long list of names. Linda places the last email facedown on the table and takes off her black reading glasses, propping her elbows on the table as her friends both lean back in their chairs. The paperwork will still need to be finalized at the post office, but for now it is ready for the night of the packing.

Carolyn, who has been Linda’s co-leader since the beginning of Treat the Troops - Southern Style, packs as many boxes as she can by herself before each official packing date. She makes sure to take her time and put care into each one, personalizing them for the soldiers who will receive them. She packs special boxes for some of the female soldiers as well as for specific people, like Eddie, the soldier who requested the oatmeal raisin cookies.

Carolyn collects donations from stores every couple of weeks and keeps them at her home to use for these personalized boxes. She then takes the rest of these donations with her to the post on the day of the packing to be used in the rest of the boxes.

On the night of the packing, the inside of the Cumming VFW Post is brightly lit and alive with activity. Over 100 people crowd the small building, filling the room with happy noise as they mill around, laugh and chatter with one another. The acrid smell of cigarette smoke drifts in through the open back door, where a few older men stand together smoking, and mixes with the sweet smell of the cookies, many of which were previously frozen but are now thawing out in the warm room and regaining their aroma.

As the time of the packing approaches, Linda, her light hair resting on the shoulders of her red, white and blue Treat the Troops sweatshirt, climbs onto the little platform usually used for the VFW’s bingo nights. Carolyn, wearing a matching sweatshirt, walks up beside Linda and the two survey the chaos for a moment before Linda lets out a series of whoops which cuts through the other noise like the siren of a fire engine.

A hush sweeps over the room, spreading from the volunteers nearest Linda to those furthest away. The small building which was moments ago full of noise and chatter is now completely still as every head turns toward Linda, awaiting what she has to say.

Linda brings copies of several of the thank-you emails and letters she has received from soldiers to each packing. She reads them to the volunteers, who hang on her every word as she reads how much the group’s efforts mean to soldiers deployed all over the world.

From the leading petty officer of the Special Marine Air Ground Task Force in Sigonella, Sicily:

I wanted to say thank you very much for your time and consideration. It’s people like you whose unwavering support means the world to us and is very much appreciated!

From a public affairs officer in Manama, Kingdom of Bahrain:

I do not have words to express my gratitude towards you, all the volunteers and donors. I am beyond humbled by your generosity. It’s great to get packages from back home from people supporting us. Please know you’ve made a lot of service members here feel the love from back home.

“We couldn’t do this without each and every one of you,” Linda says after reading the letters, making eye contact with as many of the volunteers as possible as she speaks. The volunteers gaze back at her, their eyes misty but shoulders thrown back and backs straight.

Suddenly, in the back of the room, one of the teetering stacks of empty boxes topples over, startling the older woman standing in front of them. She lets out a “whoo!” like the whistle of a train in the hushed room, prompting every head in the room to whip around to see what the commotion is about. A brief moment of stunned silence, accompanied by a few hushed gasps, fills the room before the woman grins sheepishly and exclaims, “The boxes are ready to start!”

The rest of the volunteers laugh along with the woman, and Carolyn shouts over the noise, “Okay then! One - two - three - GO!”. The noise picks up as the volunteers begin to fill the care packages.

The volunteers themselves are the main factor that makes the Southern Style branch of Treat the Troops unique from the rest of the organization. As time has gone on, many of the chapters of Treat the Troops across the country have stopped participating due to lack of interest or resources, but the Southern Style branch continues to grow larger and larger with each packing. The original 20 volunteers has grown to 120 to 150 for regular packings, and packings around the holidays brings in even more people wanting to help.

The Southern Style volunteers are hands-on throughout the entire packing process. They don’t just put a check in an envelope and sent it in, but they are dedicated to and present for each packing from beginning to end.

Before each packing, the volunteers prepare in many different ways, from buying snacks for the boxes to writing letters to the soldiers to the all-important baking and packaging of the cookies. They arrive at the packings and cheerfully pitch in to do anything they can to help make sure the boxes are packed and sent on their way to the soldiers.

In many ways, the whole community has come together to help. Schools, individuals, groups and clubs, non-profit organizations, veterans, churches and families have all become involved with Treat the Troops - Southern Style in one way or another, working together to make the packings happen.

On each packing night, a group of men with tape guns swiftly assemble flat-rate postage boxes and pile them in towering stacks in the back of the room. On the far left side of the room, older women perch behind a fold-out table, packaging toiletries in individual Ziploc bags. Older veterans, each sporting a hat from the branch of the military he served in, visit with each other in the slightly cooler space near the open door. A middle-aged woman in the back of the room, still in her nursing scrubs from a busy day at work, organizes the stacks of letters and thank-you cards to the soldiers. A few small children run around excitedly, weaving their way through the center of the group of high schoolers huddled in a clump next to the tables covered in candy and other packaged snacks.

Three long tables in the center of the room hold what the organization is most known for: the cookies. Thousands of bags of homemade cookies cover every inch of room on the tables. The cookies are packaged in groups of six, and the array of colors from the bright plastic bags forms a rainbow of hues on the tables and a colorful sea around the base of the tables, where large boxes corral the overflow cookies that won’t fit on the tables.

The packing officially begins, setting off an organized confusion. Still chattering and laughing, the volunteers line up to pull the empty boxes the men assembled earlier off the top of the teetering piles. They take their boxes and duck in between the tables and one another to claim bags with toiletries and snacks to go in the boxes. Each waiting package is filled with seven dozen cookies, and handfuls of brightly wrapped miniature chocolate bars, peppermints, jawbreakers and other small candies are thrown in last to fill in every empty space. A handwritten letter is placed on the very top of each package before the boxes circle back to where they started and the men with the tape guns secure them closed.

The small, cramped room grows warmer from the combined body heat of the volunteers. The overflow cookie bags are moved up onto the tables to fill the spaces left by the cookies that have already been packed. The tower of empty boxes shrinks, and the piles of filled and taped boxes grow taller. The heaps of toiletries and snacks dwindle, and gradually the cookies follow suit until the last box is packed.

Metallic screeching noises cut through the room like nails on a chalkboard as the metal legs of the now-empty tables are dragged across the cement floor to the sides of the room, leaving an aisle for the volunteers to stand shoulder-to-shoulder in two long lines from the boxes in the back of the room, through the door and to the empty trailer backed up to the building’s entrance.

The lines of people pass the boxes from the back of the room all the way to the trailer. As the hundreds of boxes travel down the line, the progress backs up in the doorway as both lines compete to pass the boxes through the narrow opening. Eventually the volunteers in the doorway fall into a rhythm, taking turns handing their boxes through.

Three small boys climb into the trailer and run back and forth, sweating from the exertion but never seeming to tire as they convey each box to be stacked against the back of the trailer. Gradually their trips become shorter as the piles of boxes fill up the back of the trailer and begin to creep toward the front. By the time each box is loaded, the large trailer is full of neatly stacked packages. A young boy with a bright orange shirt insists on carrying the final box out to the trailer himself, his back straight and smile proud as he gently sets the package inside.

The entire process takes less than an hour. The next morning, a smaller group will take the boxes to the post office to ship overseas to the waiting soldiers.

Treat the Troops is an integral part of Linda’s life, and it brings her immense joy knowing she can make a difference and brighten the day of so many deployed soldiers. At every packing, Linda’s smile never leaves her face. Volunteers come up to her with question after question and sometimes problems as they set up for the packing, but as Linda rushes around amid the chaos her eyes never lose their sparkle and she never stops smiling. She jokes that “I don’t know what I would do with my time without Treat the Troops - I’d just be retired!”

Both Linda and Carolyn have forged relationships with numerous soldiers who have sent thank-you emails back to them. Soldiers have told them that receiving the handmade cookies from home makes passing the time a little more bearable, and that knowing the boxes traveled all the way from Cumming, Georgia to them at their bases puts smiles on their faces.

One Navy officer aboard the USS Theodore Roosevelt wrote an email to Carolyn, saying “It may seem like a small gesture to you both, but it means the world to us. It is both an honor and privilege to be able to do what we do, and yes it’s not easy being away from home and family, but because of people like you it’s worth it. Your ‘small gesture of gratitude’ helps motivate us to keep moving forward and fight the good fight.”

Carolyn and Linda both save every piece of correspondence they get, and they continue to stay in touch with many of the soldiers even after they have returned home.

Sometimes, a returned soldier who received boxes from the organization while deployed overseas will share a personal testimony with the group of volunteers. Personnel from all different branches of the military have spoken to the group, dressed in their uniforms and standing straight and tall as they explain the impact the boxes have made on them.

At the April 2018 packing, the father of a deployed soldier speaks to the volunteers about just how much of an impact they are making.

His son, Matthew, is a military police K9 handler who is deployed in Garmisch, Germany for a year. Matthew works alongside his german shepherd, Cezar, who is trained to sniff out explosives.

Matthew’s father holds up a framed photograph that portrays his 20-year-old son dressed in his uniform, his young face smiling up at the camera as he kneels next to his faithful brown-and-black dog. The soldier’s father holds the photo proudly in the air for all to see as he addresses the group, his loud voice booming through the crowd in the small room.

“He’s doing this for all of us, keeping everybody safe, and he’s definitely in harm’s way on a daily basis,” the man says, his tone becoming softer for just a second before he once again raises his voice. “We all thank you for what you do, and I guarantee he thanks you. You all are my heroes.”

The volunteers, many of them blinking quickly while others subtly wipe the corners of their eyes, burst into applause. The man sets the photo of his son tenderly down in the center of the table next to him, where Matthew can watch the patriotic volunteers pack boxes of homemade cookies for him and hundreds of other soldiers like him.

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