Literary Journalism

What A Soldier Needs

I dread taking my car in for anything: oil change, tire rotation, brake service.  Although I know these things are necessary, I despise taking time out of my day to deal with them. I would much rather avoid the hassle of waiting in line, waiting for service, waiting to pay. It is just such a chore.

In the past, I have done my own repairs. At one time I owned a ‘84 Chevy Chevette and I learned quickly how to unstick the choke on a cold day whenever the car would not start (shove a screw driver between the choke plate — problem solved). I have also had to change the alternator out of my ‘90 Chevy Beretta (putting the serpentine belt back on was the tricky part). I find that it is not as easy to work on the newer car I own now so I have gotten out of the habit of even trying.

Once after a flat, I rode the “doughnut” all the way home and to the repair shop the next day. I just needed a new tire. The mechanic felt the need to “test” me.  He asked a few car questions and seemed amazed when I answered correctly. I can usually rattle off any information. Tire diameter: 13, engine oil: 5 weight 30, current mileage: 76,108.

“Let’s just double check,” he said. He could have just looked up the information in the first place so I wondered if he just got a little joy from putting me on the spot or wasting more of my time.  I wasn’t sure.  I sat for a while then the mechanic came in to talk to me. Talk to me? Why wasn’t my tire just put on already?

“You need two new tires,” he said. I knew I only had enough cash for one. “You also need a front-end alignment to prevent anymore wear on the tires…”  I already said that when I first checked my car in, but after all he is the expert. “…and we will balance your tires for you. When was the last time you had them rotated?” I just want a tire.

I smiled and reluctantly said, “Do what you have to do.” I sat and sat in the tiny waiting room. The mix of stale coffee, rubber and fumes that early in the morning almost made me nauseated.

No more than three months later, I had to go back to the repair shop when my windshield strip came loose. Winter was still lingering, so I did not want the freezing and thawing to create an even bigger and more expensive problem. A return to the repair shop could not be delayed any longer. I went to Metro Glass Incorporated in Collinsville, Illinois located just up the street from my house. I anticipated that it would not take too long, after all it was a small business. I entered the shop and asked for assistance. That’s when I met Marcia Fish. She was friendly and pleasant enough.

“What did you need done today?” she asked.

“The rubber strip on my windshield came unglued. I had my windshield replaced awhile ago while I was at work but for some reason the adhesive didn’t take, I guess.”

She took my information. Then she said, “You can sit and wait while it’s being fixed.”

I sat across from her while she went about answering phones and greeting customers.  I wondered how long this was really going to take. She went on with her work like I was not even there. Just then, I noticed a huge poster board on a wooden easel.  It reminded me of a science project display that I did in the sixth grade on solar power. The entire poster board was covered with pictures of soldiers. The pictures were arranged meticulously and symmetrically. Wanting to make small talk to pass the time, I interrupted her work and asked, “Do you have someone serving in Iraq?”

“No,” she said peering over her thin-rimmed glasses. “Those are my adopted soldiers.” I wondered if I heard her right. As she continued speaking, she got up from her desk and grabbed a large black binder and handed it to me.  This oversized folder was full of pictures, full of emails. All were from soldiers that she sends care packages to and all where in Iraq. I flipped through the entire binder only to be given another one. I tried really hard to balance these binders that spilled over my lap. In the corner of my eye I could see several more in a small pile to my right. I could be here all day.

 

Marcia Fish has managed the local AdoptaPlatoon Soldier Support Effort program in her area for about five years. She relies solely on donations to run the program (her postage alone averages out to be about two-thousand dollars a month). Founded in 1998 as a nonprofit (tax code) 501C-3 organization, the AdoptaPlatoon program continues to grow strong. They help support all branches of the United States Military around the world. This program exists to improve the quality of life for the soldiers, boost morale, and help military families. All individuals are encouraged to “adopt” one soldier. After being accepted into the program, the individual promises to send a weekly letter and one care package a month to the adopted service member.  Typically, large groups like youth groups or private or civic organizations will adopt an entire platoon of about fifteen to forty soldiers.

Organizers of the AdoptaPlatoon program put together special projects for the soldiers like Operation Don’t Bug Me. The focus of this project is to collect and send bug repellent to the soldiers in the summer months. There is also Operation Holiday Stocking. Troops receive individual stockings filled holiday treats and games.

Ten years ago, a very close friend of mine, Mark, decided to join the Army. I really did not support this decision. We met when I was in high school. We dated for six years.  He was almost finished with college so I had no idea why he wanted to put his life in jeopardy like that. We had only been broken up about a year, but still I did not want him to go. I remembered that Mark and I corresponded for a short time. His letters were brief and lack any real passion.

 “…we clean the barracks on Sunday but not til later so I figured I’d write you a little. Been working for the Drill Sergeant–doing all the stuff he doesn’t want to.  Also been working in the company office. I feel like Radar or Klinger from Mash.”

Years later he was able to share with me what really goes on in the military. Only then did I learn that what he really experienced was not what he had written about. If I had known what was really going on behind the lines, I would have written more.

At the age of twenty-six, Mark’s rank while in the Army was PFC (Private First Class).  He was stationed at Fort Benning, Georgia for one year and his classification was “mechanized infantry.” Mark was excited when he first enlisted. The military was going to provide an escape from the rut of everyday life. The recruiter failed to disclose the reality of the military life.

It was almost as if he had to become a different person to survive. He had to accept where he was and what was going on around him because he was not going anywhere anytime soon.

I called Mark a few days ago to ask him about his time that he spent in the Army.

“I so was surprised when you actually went in the military. It seemed so unlike you.”

“I was looking at the service as a way out of a life that appeared to be stalled in its tracks,” Mark said.

The United Service Organizations or the USO served as the first major organization to support American soldiers that were deployed.  Although it was founded in 1941 by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, it is a nonprofit organization that is completely separate from the United States Government. During World War II, the USO was remembered as a place for doughnuts and cup of coffee. It has since changed with the modern times. The USO continues to exist because of the men and women that volunteer their time as well as those that donate money and supplies. There is a special program called Operation USO Care Package.  The USO of Missouri, Inc. runs theirs out of a warehouse in Earth City, Missouri. Throughout the year, volunteers assemble and mail these packages containing toiletries, phone cards, video games, books, and movies to soldiers overseas.

The USO of Missouri, Inc. located near the East Terminal at Lambert International Airport in St. Louis, was started in 1981 by James S. McDonnell. It began with one counter, now it is one of the largest airport service centers in the world. This USO helps soldiers that are in transit from their home to their duty stations or those on their way home.This USO also makes the amenities available to the immediate family of the soldiers. It is open twenty-four hours a day. The facility offers free food and is set up with entertainment (books, magazines, television) sleeping quarters, lounge area, nursery, laundry room, and cybernet café.

Byron Dozier has been a volunteer there for about two years. His duty is to check soldiers in, answer any of their questions, and make sure that they get to where they are supposed to be going.

“Most of these kids come in and have never been anywhere before. They have no idea what is in store for them,” he said. “We help soldiers get a little hospitality and try to help make their transition a little easier,” he said.

Unfortunately, not much prepares the new recruit for that completely new way of life. Often exposed to substandard living conditions (one toilet that flushed for fifty-five guys), the extreme physical, mental, and emotional drain, and enduring abuse all day long from drill sergeants, soldiers yearn for some kind of normalcy — care packages.

The little gifts from back home, if even from a stranger, help minimize loneliness and help soldiers feel that they are not forgotten. Mark, like most others, had a hard time adjusting at first. I wish I had written him more. He was lonely and like most soldiers he really needed a connection to home.

Once he signed on the  DD Form 4/1 dotted line, cut his hair, and laced up his combat boots, he became one of “them.”  The soldiers dressed the same, ate the same, and were forced to think the same. At home Mark was a son, a brother, a boyfriend, an uncle, a grandson, a student, and a musician. While he was in the Army, he was only a soldier. Having your identity stripped away must an altering experience.

Then, the injury happened. He suffered a femoral neck fracture from the high-energy trauma ofAIT(Advanced Infantry Training). After a year, the strenuous marching day after day, week after week caused his hip to break. He was sent to the military hospital.

“You can’t get any packages when you are in training. But I was able to receive care packages from my parents when I was in the hospital,” Mark said.

“What did they send?”

“Food, my favorite candy, CD’s, favorite books, and phone cards. Those were like gold,” Mark said.

His rehabilitation was long and painful. He was discharged. Although he was grateful to go home, he was also upset for not being able to finish what he had started. I felt bad that he was forced out that way. It was not in his control but he was sent home, nevertheless. On the other hand, I was thankful he was coming home (almost) unscathed.

“Was there anything that you didn’t expect?” I asked.

“The sadness. Leaving people that became your new friends. But coming home was good,” he replied.

“What was the best thing about returning home?” I asked.

“Having the sense of attempting something pretty crazy and having the good feeling that even though you went into the service as somewhat of an escape, you came out with a real feeling of pride that you did the best you could,” he said.

 

The door shut behind me and she looked up when.

“How can I help you?” she said.

“Hi Marcia. I was in a few months ago and was really interested in the work you are doing with the AdoptaPlatoon program. I was wondering if you had time to talk about it some more.”

She paused a moment. “Sure. Now is a great time because my boss is out. He isn’t too thrilled with all of this.” She waved her hands over the big donation box in front of her desk.

She pushed her half eaten microwave lunch to the side and started brushing off crumbs from her hands. She motioned for me to sit down and asked, “What do you need to know?”

“I was interested to learn how you got started.”

It was the winter of 2003.  “I saw this picture at Christmas time.”  She explained that this ad in a magazine was entitled “What a Soldier Needs.”  This compelling ad had suggestions of things that they could really use. She decided to buy a nice helmet liner.

“So you just bought the item beforehand?  Interesting.”

“Yes.  Then I realized I didn’t know who to send it to.  I got online and started looking for organizations that sent stuff to soldiers.  None of them appealed to me until I came across the AdoptaPlatoon.  I sent a request and they did a short interview and approved me.  They sent me my first soldier, Doug.”

“What do you remember about him?”  I asked.

“I received one hand written letter. He talked about how he would go on the rooftops and listen to the bells.”

Doug, a thirty-seven year old staff sergeant, was stationed in Baghdad.  He was born and raised in New Orleans. At the time, he had been in the Army for fourteen years.  In his letter he wrote:

Dear Marcia,

Let me start this letter by saying how truly great it is to get a letter from

someone I have never met before. It is people like you that make America the best country in the world.  You didn’t have to write or even care but you did and I think that’s great….  I climb the stairs of bombed out palace to the roof and look out over the city….  It is truly a magical place.

I will do my best to write soon. 

Your friend in Iraq, Doug.

“I never heard from him again,” she said.

“But you still sent care packages to him?”  I asked.

“Yes.”

Once committed to the program, she sent one letter a week and a care package once a month. “I thought — just sit and wait?  No.”  She felt that she could do more and wanted to do more.  “So I adopted three more soldiers.  One gal and three guys,” she said. “I found that it was just as easy to shop for one as it was four.”

“How did you end up with an entire platoon?” I asked.

“An Alton business got wind of what I was doing,” she said.  Shortly after that, someone from the American Water Works Company in Alton, Illinois called and said they had been collecting items for the soldiers.  They had an assortment of canned items, snack foods, toiletries, and magazines that they did not know what to do with.

“I told them to bring it over and I would take care of it.”  She said they brought her two truckloads of the various items.  So she decided to send it to more troops.  “So I adopted a company of 250 soldiers.”

She stood up and started pointing at the pictures on the poster board display. She pointed to a female soldier.

“This is Brandi.  She’s home now.”

She got out another display that was folded up out of sight.  I saw several more cardboard displays folded up in the corner.  I could only guess that she rotates these out.  She then pointed to another soldier.  “This is my son, Aaron.”  She smiled and said, “He’s in the Air Force. He’s a helicopter pilot now.”  She had several more stories to go along with each photo.

Some Iraqi children get really bad eye infections and if they go untreated they go blind.  In certain areas, Iraqi people still do not trust the soldiers. The soldiers use small toys to lure the children out. Once the parents can see that the soldiers are not going to harm them, they allow the soldiers to treat them.

Marcia got out another binder.  She started to flip through the various emails and photos that were all in clear sheet protectors.  She had a short story for every soldier she pointed to.  Some soldiers finished their tour of duty and were home.  Some soldiers came home, just to be deployed again.

“I’m so surprised you remember all of their names,” I said.

“I couldn’t tell you what rank they are but I know their names.  That’s who they are to me,” she said.

Just then a customer came in.

“How’s your day goin’, Marcia?”

“This has just been the best lunch because of her.”  She smiled at me and went on to tell him why I was there.

Marcia acknowledged that there have been a few soldiers that she has not heard from.  She does not expect anything in return so it does not seem to bother her.  There have also been a couple of soldiers that she did not hear from until they were going home.  They then expressed their appreciation.

Sometimes soldiers will tell her they have all of the items they need.  They then give her the contact information of soldiers that are in deplorable conditions.  Although she has “her soldiers” that she is committed to, Marcia often will add others to her growing roster.

Marcia amazingly can recall each of the soldiers’ stories but there are a few that have made an impression on her.  Sometimes she relates to them on more of a personal level.  One soldier that she corresponded with for a about year finally told her that his wife was also serving in Iraq.

“I must have her information,” Marcia said.  She started sending packages to her also.  After returning home, they sent Marcia a Mother’s Day Card.  Inside the card was a hand written “thank you” and a charming picture.  It reminded me of an engagement photograph. They were an attractive couple.

Through her sister, Marcia was informed of a lady who had a son in the military.  This mother was unable to send items to her own son because of a dire financial situation.  Marcia immediately asked her sister to get his information.  She sent him a care package and a hand written letter.  His response:

dear marcia fish

hello my name chris i am 20 year old im from s.a texas!!!! frist off i would love to say thank you soo much for all the things u sent me…i been only getting packages from u lol

“He’s a sweetie,” Marcia said.

thanks a lot i mean the fly traps are great i think we have eonugh for the rest of the year ;) but i just got ur last package today and omg theres nothing but good stuff in there its like u knew exactly want i needed…in ur letter u asked me what i needed and well u def. done this b4 lol i dont really need or want to request anything only cuz when ur packages come in its like christmas and i like the surprise…is that weird?

“They very seldom will ask for things,” Marcia said.

and i want to apologize bout y this took so long to write you…i was on a mission when a lot of mah stuff cam in…i did get ur first msg bout you and how u adopted me but i was getting rdy to leave so i had no time but yesterday when i finally got back after using everything i came down here with…i came back and u resupplied me so thank u soo much and sorry y it took soo long…this last letter that u sent me inside the package aw man that was soo funny i was show everyone in mah shop mah cpt got a kick out of it.

“That must have been the jokes.  I send a sheet of jokes in every single box I send.”

And really the sew kit was very random lol but i needed that the most cuz well……i riped mah pants while i was gone…dont laugh lol…its not cuz im big either i just simply was in the wrong directions at the wrong time.

“Sometimes I send stuff and think people will think it’s stupid.  I then find out later how great it was,” she said.

…i no u have send packages here b4 i think u said u did back a few years ago right?Well i would send us some pics of around here and me and mah buddies but i dunno if u want to or not.But just let me no cuz i would be more than happy to.

“I’ve noticed in the last few years that their email are looking more like texting.  They didn’t write like that before,” she said.

i would have writen this letter to u cuz to me it would have been more sincere but i been gone for soo long i dunno how long these packages been here for and didnt want u to think i would just being dumb so i had to send a email cuz i know its fast but just hit me back to at least to know u got this mail sorry it took to long i feel like a ass sorry……..but i will talk to you later sincery chris p.s. thank for everything!!!!

“He’s funny — one of my favorites.  I get a real kick out of his letters,” she said. “I think they’re cute.”  Marcia enjoys the correspondence with Chris.  He often writes how happy it makes his mother when he tells her what Marcia has sent him.  She keeps her eye out for special things.  For soldiers, items like a lawn chair, a rug, or a poker set are not easy to get at the PX (Post Exchange).  When she comes across something unique, she will mail it to him.  She claims, “The the more correspondence, the better.”  It helps her to figure out what works, what soldiers like, or what a soldier needs.

Marcia confesses to being a bit obsessive when it comes to “her soldiers” and spends most of her free time on the program.  She will usually run program errands on her lunch break, especially if there is a sale on specific items that she wants to send to all of the soldiers.

“What about your free time?” I asked.

“I make the most of my time — I can accomplish a lot on lunch hour,” she said.

“You don’t make time for hobbies?” I asked.

“No.  My life revolves around this.  I don’t have time for recreation.  It takes time away from the program,” she replied.  “I don’t even like to take the time to eat out.  I go home and work on the program another two to three hours.  Gerry cooks and tells me when dinner is ready.”

Gerry, her boyfriend, told me that he really does not mind helping.  “She is dedicated to the work she is doing and people and soldiers appreciate her.”  He admits, “Even while we are watching movies, all you hear is the riiiiiiippoppoppop of the packaging tape going off.” It was getting late so I started to put my coat on.  Marcia asked me, “Have you ever heard of that book The Purpose Driven Life?

“No,” I said.

“Well, someone sent it to me anonymously. But I just haven’t had time to read it.”

 

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