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Christmas Care Package Tips for GIs at War

A Redlands man who spent 2011 in Iraq and Afghanistan offers advice about making care packages memorable.

Christmas season is here, so now is the time for some pointers about what makes a care package special among soldiers serving in combat zones.

In my 30 years in the active and reserve Army, I have been blessed by numerous care packages from loved ones and complete strangers alike. I appreciated them even more during my 2011 reserve mobilizations to Iraq and Afghanistan.

I get many questions about care packages and how to make them special. People struggle about packing them because they don’t understand war-zone life.

I’m here to help.

Overwhelmingly, soldiers get tons of pre-packaged sweets. Girl Scout cookies arrive by the crate. Generally, soldiers have access to PXs brimming with national brand cookies. These gifts are great – and nobody complains – but then again, I can’t recall anyone ever bragging about their newly arrived Oreo cookies.

Care packages worth remembering are ones with a local flavor. One from Redlands included a big bag of pistachios from Trader Joes – a local brand whose label screams, “Hey! I’m from California! Just like you!”

That was a strong message of appreciation for me while serving in Afghanistan, 11.5 time zones away from the Golden State.

My favorite package came from my fellow conservatives in the Redlands Tea Party Patriots, who mailed a bright-red tea party t-shirt covered with heart-felt messages in black marker (I opened it during a Skype video conservation with my wife and son on Father’s Day, 2011, while stationed in Baghdad). I pinned it to my wall for the rest of my tour because it was a tangible and daily reminder about people back home praying for my safe return.

Most packages I received were shared with the civilians and soldiers I worked with during our 12/7 shifts. It was custom among us to plop them in our work bays so everyone could dig in.

My church, the First Congregational Church in Redlands, sent me four sizable boxes filled with toiletries – always popular because PXs just don’t have the shelf space to offer all the brands of shampoos, foot creams, and tooth paste soldiers of both sexes might want.

One package that broke my heart was from a friend in Iowa who sent me a big and beautiful home-made rhubarb cake. The tin foil had opened en route and mold had set in. I can still feel the pain of having to lob the entire thing into the trash bin.

The most creative package was from a friend in Redlands who sent me home-made biscotti, which I consider the most underrated gift anyone could mail to anyone at war. Soldiers tend to be caffeine addicts. Biscotti can survive anything. Just dunk in coffee to add moisture. (In Afghanistan, at our local coffee shop, I ordered a “MOAC,” or “Mother Of All Coffees.” It included four shots of espresso; it kept me lit for my 12-hour shifts.

My other care package advice includes:

*Cigars. Good cigars. I was underwhelmed by their quality at the PX.

*Coffee. Good coffee. Soldiers never deploy without their coffee makers. *Mail early.

*Wetter is not better for home-baked goods. Distance and moisture do not mix. Think biscotti. *Send books and magazines only by request. More than 99 percent of the unsolicited books and magazines mailed are never read.

*And do not, even as a joke, send any form of alcohol, pornography or pork. All three are banned in Muslim countries. You could get your loved ones into extreme trouble.

I sense people, especially children, grow frustrated when they don’t hear back about their gifts. This is understandable because soldiers receive numerous unsolicited care packages.

If possible, send packages to a named soldier. This is never easy considering how often soldiers rotate in and out of war zones. But by sending a package to a specific soldier, somebody over there will take ownership. (And yes, feel free to request a thank-you note. Even in war zones, it is considered bad manners not to send a kind note in return).

Care packages are huge morale boosters, especially during the Christmas season. They are a great way to support the troops. They punctuate never-ending work days with a moment of joy -- and home.

(This column was published as an op-ed in the Redlands Daily Facts on Dec. 5. Only this week did I think it would also make a nice Christmas column for The Patch.)

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

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