In a remote stretch of Iraq's western desert, near the Syrian-Iraq border, there is a primitive camp called Korean Village. Over 1000 U.S. military troops are at this camp right now, helping to run checkpoints and carry out border patrol. For them, the upcoming holidays hold little cheer.
"I said, wow, we've got to help these guys because they are really on the front lines," said Jay Edwards, first vice commander of the American Legion Post 270 of McLean. "We have got to give them a Christmas."
Edwards and his wife Marian Chirichella, president of American Legion Auxiliary Unit 270, are in the process of doing just that. It all started in the fall of 2003. The husband and wife team founded "Angels of Mercy," a program to support American troops that had been wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan. Sponsored by American Legion Auxiliary Unit 270 and American Legion Post 270 of McLean, the program raises money to buy supplies and necessities for troops recovering at Walter Reed Army Medical Center and at several hospitals in Iraq.
"The more lives we can touch, the more we feel our program is achieving its goal," said Chirichella. "We have a saying here that if we can bring a smile to the face of a wounded soldier at Walter Reed, then we've done a lot that day."
The program started out as a small local effort, but with the aid of a little publicity it quickly gained momentum.
"The Angels of Mercy program was identified as the top volunteer program in the nation in 2004 to help active-duty military and their families," said Chirichella. "It threw the program into international recognition."
As word of mouth spread, more donations came in. According to Chirichella, the program has received contributions from 40 states, as well as from international sources.
"The more money we have to work with the more we can do — that's why we've grown so much," said Edwards.
THIS UNEXPECTED GROWTH HELPED to spawn two spin-off programs — "No Soldiers Left in Need," and the Angels of Mercy Christmas gift mailing. "No Soldiers Left in Need" was created to assist with the long-term needs of wounded American troops and their families.
"There was some concern about wounded soldiers who have returned to civilian life," said Edwards. "But with that program we just respond to requests — we're not pro-active like we are with Walter Reed."
However, when they got the idea to send Christmas gifts to Iraq, Edwards and Chirichella became about as pro-active as two people can get. Edwards was first inspired when he made contact with a U.S. Marine colonel in Iraq six months ago.
"He had told me about the needs of the hospitals, and then he got transferred to this place called Korean Village," said Edwards.
Through their e-mail correspondence, Edwards found out about the rather primitive conditions of the camp, and was also given the name of the Marine colonel who was in charge of "Christmas in Korea."
"Of course, me being me, I jumped on the Internet and e-mailed him, and he sent me a list of the things they needed," said Edwards.
Edwards and Chirichella started taking care of the list of basic supplies, and promptly decided that they wanted to do more than provide just the necessities.
"He [the Marine colonel] did say that because a lot of these young people are away from home for the holidays, and they're injured, they wanted to do a home Christmas for them," said Chirichella.
Using donation money, Chirichella personally went out and purchased hundreds of presents. She bought jigsaw puzzles, hand-held electronic games, board games, cookies, baby hams, stockings, videos, a karaoke machine and countless other treats.
"Our living room looked quite interesting," joked Chirichella. "It was like a plastic-bag rug."
The presents will be divided equally among the hospitals in Iraq and the camp. On Thursday, Nov. 17, Edwards and Chirichella organized a wrapping party at McLean Post 270, and volunteers worked all day to wrap, package and mail the presents.
"It's particularly good this year because you know they are all going to the three hospitals that they contacted in Iraq," said volunteer Betty Quinn, a member of the American Legion Auxiliary Unit 270. "It makes it very meaningful to know that it's a personal contact in Iraq."
Anna Carrera just joined Auxiliary Unit 270 and says that she volunteered to wrap because "it's a worthwhile cause."
"Especially because it's for the boys in Iraq," she said.
Auxiliary member Lee Holmberg also lent a helping hand at Thursday's wrapping effort.
"I think this is very important," said Holmberg. "Whether you agree with the policy [of the President] or not, you support your troops."
Both Edwards and Chirichella say that although necessities and presents are both wonderful, the material items only make up part of the "Angels of Mercy" program.
"It's not just items, it's also the things that you cannot buy like compassion and understanding and love. ...we are almost like surrogate parents to some of these kids," said Chirichella. "The program has not only different efforts, but also different focuses, from things to the love of humanity."
Edwards agrees that "TLC" is at the heart of their efforts.
"We have personally hugged over 2500 wounded soldiers, and twice as many family members," he said.
FOR ADDITIONAL INFORMATION about the "Angels of Mercy" program, or about joining the American Legion Auxiliary, please contact Marian Chirichella at 703-938-8930, or by e-mail at Auxiliary270VAR@aol.com. The "Angels of Mercy" Web site, www.mcleanpost270.org/oifoef contains up to date information about the needs of America's wounded military personnel who are returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. If you would like to support any of the "Angels of Mercy" activities, please make checks payable to American Legion Auxiliary Unit 270. Insert "For OIF/OEF" on the note line and mail to P.O. Box 3310, McLean, VA 22102.