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.
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.
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.