Burke Used Books has been sending thousands of books to Iraq for nearly two years, and soldiers are sending back words of gratitude and appreciation.
The bookstore’s owner, Patricia Nyhus, said she began the program as a way to show American troops that citizens back home not only care about them, but also think about them often.
“I just always felt like more needed to be done; it needed to be more than just lip service,” said Nyhus. “Women don’t stay at home anymore and knit socks [like they did for soldiers in past wars].”
And soldiers who have received the books, mostly in surprise shipments, have written to Nyhus multiple times thanking her for her kindness. Soldiers at Saddam Hussein’s Perfume Palace in Baghdad, part of the Radwaniyah Presidential Site of buildings and artificial lakes, have established a library there with the books from Burke. Sandra Carol Allen, a U.S. service person on duty in Iraq, sent Nyhus a letter on July 5 thanking her. Allen included pictures of the library in the Perfume Palace, with the Burke Used Books sign clearly hanging on the wall behind the bookshelves.
“As you can see from the photos, we are well stocked in the Perfume Palace,” wrote Allen.
THE U.S. EMBASSY now has a small library as well, according to an e-mail to Nyhus from Anthony Latona, a service person in Iraq. The library is located in a section of the embassy where “soldiers, guards and workers can hang out, drink coffee, read the newspaper, eat and now grab a book.”
For other soldiers, the books mean more than just a way to pass the time.
“Perhaps even more than the books, [the shipments] helps us to know that someone in America really cares about soldiers and what we are trying to do for the world,” said Sgt. Maj. Thomas Brooks, of the Texas Army National Guard, who received books from Burke Used Books while stationed in Iraq.
The idea to send books came naturally, since Nyhus said she isn’t a rich person, but has lots of books. She also felt it was an important gesture, since dictatorships often destroy books and oppress citizens, she said. When the military leaves the region, Nyhus said the books will likely remain, and she’s thrilled about that.
“Once you’ve read the book, [dictators] can never steal the story from your head,” said Nyhus.
Brooks said the books help relieve boredom, which is a common problem for the soldiers in non-combat situations.
“Combat is weeks of boredom surrounding seconds of terror,” said Brooks, in an e-mail to the Connection. “Books help me remember there is a world to go back to when this is over.”
Karen Brown, an associate with Weichert Realtors, heard about the book shipments from a couple at an office yard sale. Brown donated all of the books that didn’t sell to Burke Used Books, to be included in a shipment to the soldiers. Brown said she is trying to get some groups together to provide more assistance, either by donating books or money.
“I think it’s very important to get stuff over there to help our troops,” said Brown. “[Reading books] gives them something to do.”
After trying, and failing, to obtain financial assistance for postage from the federal government, Nyhus started telling customers about the program. She keeps a piggy bank by the cash register, and people often put money in it as they purchase books. The store collects an average of $60 to $70 per week, said Nyhus, which helps cover postage costs. The shipments are sent in 17-pound boxes, so postage isn’t cheap.
Nyhus and her employees at the store send the packages about once a month. The store has also created a bulletin board near its entrance, with pictures and letters from the soldiers posted for customers to see. The boxes are stacked up near the front door as well, waiting to accumulate enough to ship out. When Brooks was back in Washington and stopped by the store to personally thank Nyhus, she said she “about cried” when he walked in the door. He has since returned as a civilian volunteer to help the military efforts in Kosovo.
“The people who send us books let me know that we aren’t forgotten here,” said Brooks.