With dance music playing in the background, over 150 volunteers with the United Service Organization (USO) spent their Veterans Day filling care packages to send to soldiers stationed overseas.
"I couldn't think of a better thing to do with my time today," said Bill Murdock, a 10 year Navy veteran, taping boxes together to be filled with the packages. "This is a sign of support for our troops."
Volunteers surrounded three long tables, working together to assemble "camo kits" and bags filled with snacks and phone cards in a warehouse at Fort Belvoir on Friday, Nov. 11. Some volunteers, like Murdock, were veterans, others were simply there to say thanks.
The USO has sent more than 750,000 care packages to soldiers since the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, said Elaine Rogers, president of the Metro Washington USO chapter.
"You don't realize how much you can impact people," Rogers said to the volunteers, taking a break after a morning of hard work. "Reading the letters from the service people thanking us for sending the packages, this is our way of saying we haven't forgotten about you, there are people at home who remember you and who care about you."
Tim and Laura Marshallsay drove down from Baltimore, Md., to put together care packages, spending a minimum of three hours in traffic on a holiday weekend.
"It seemed like the right thing to do," Tim Marshallsay said. "It's a lot less than what they're doing for us overseas."
Having attended several "stuffing parties" the USO hosts throughout the Washington region, Laura Marshallsay said she was inspired to help when she saw a large group of soldiers waiting to fly out of the Dallas airport to go to Iraq.
"I feel really strongly about this," she said. "My husband is a Navy reservist. I know someone else's husband is over there, and I want to help out."
MOST OF the items in the care packages were daily essentials, like soap, deodorant and snacks, which makes the work "so personal," Laura Marshallsay said. "You realize how much they need this stuff," she said.
Joined by Army officers, many volunteers knew first-hand the impact receiving a care package can have on a soldier.
"We didn't have deodorant or hand sanitizer when I was in Iraq," said Master Sgt. Greg Andrews of Kingstowne, who had received a care package when he was in Iraq.
"It's inspiring to see so many people here to help out," he said. "I didn't know there'd be so many people here from so many diverse backgrounds."
Andrews attributed the turn-out to people who wanted to do something to celebrate the Veterans Day holiday on their day off. "The troops will be happy to receive something from home," he said. "In some places, you can't get a lot of this stuff over there, it's quicker to get it from things like this."
The work of the USO is unknown to many people, both civilian and military, said Sgt. Maj. Lon Crosier of Woodbridge, a 29-year member of the Army.
"Young soldiers value the USO a lot, especially their first time out when they're homesick," he said. "All the activities the USO provides are so appreciated."
Crosier, who works at the Pentagon as the director of policy and resources for human resources, said he has friends still stationed in Iraq which inspired him to volunteer his time.
"This is the least I can do to help. This is an important opportunity and I think everyone here knows it," Crosier said.
PACKAGES WITH a United States postmark are a morale-booster, Crosier said, bringing with them "a tremendous amount of comfort" to soliders stationed in a foreign country.
"For some soldiers, they carry the camo kits with them everywhere," he said. "It's the little things that mean the most to them."
Ed Harris spent more than half of his 22 years in the Air Force stationed overseas and had received several packages from the USO during his military career.
"Were it not for the support from the USO, the only things we would see in English and the only connection to home we had were our uniforms," said Harris, a retired lieutenant colonel who now owns a custom motorcycle business in Woodbridge. "It was a lifeline, quite literally. If this is all I need to do to support the troops, I'll be here all day."
Harris closed his motorcycle shop Friday afternoon to help out, bringing with him Anthony "Moose" Phillips. They had attended another "stuffing party" hosted by the USO the weekend before at Fort Belvoir.
"How much time can you put in and say you've done enough? Those guys don't get a day off," Phillips said. "They can't get shot or get tired and say 'OK, I've done my time.'"
Harris agreed. "There's nothing more important than supporting the troops," he said. "The significance of this small package may be lost on someone who's never been there, but as someone who knows what it's like, there's nothing more important than getting something from home."
After spending a year and a half in Iraq at the end of an eight-year career, retired Sgt. Chad Best quickly found a job with the USO after leaving the Army last year.
Working for the USO after two tours of duty in Iraq gives him the opportunity to "support soldiers from a civilian standpoint and still be with my family," he said. "This is my way of giving back to the people I served side by side with and those I haven't met."
A year ago, many people didn't believe he'd really left the Army for good, his patriotism and dedication to his fellow soldiers was so strong. "I go to bed at night knowing I make a difference," Best said. "Yeah, I miss the life, but I don't miss it enough to go back."
The USO has raised $9 million for care packages through donations of $25 from families or individuals who want to "sponsor" a package, he said.