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Making the War "Real"

Mothers organize project to help children say thanks to soldiers in Iraq.

Where is the evidence that America is at war? It lurks in newspapers and on television: a number, a picture, a scrolling list of names and ages and hometowns. Less commonly, in a shopping mall, a restaurant, a parking lot, the evidence flashes in the corner of the eye. A self-conscious glance at the slick skin of a stranger’s healed scar or the carbon-fiber of a prosthetic limb disjoints, for a moment, the unexamined routine of a routine day.

On Memorial Day, Americans are reminded that the evidence is written in cemetery marble. Flowers, flags, fingertips pressed against the stone call out for attention. Parents who lost a child, brothers who lost a sister, children who lost a father try to bring the dead closer.

Since the war began, Katie Savage wondered how she could impress on her young children that their country was at war. “How do I make these things matter?” she wondered. “It’s too easy to take for granted … It’s hard to make [the war] real and concrete and tangible.”

“I think the rest of us that have the luxury of not having our families separated, we have a responsibility,” Savage said. And an impersonal gesture would not be enough. After Hurricane Katrina, Savage described going online and typing her credit card number into website of the Red Cross. When her oldest daughter, Mary Kate, who is in Kindergarten, asked her what she had done to help, Savage told her she’d sent money. “But Mom,” her daughter said, “they don’t have any stores.”

IN MARCH, Savage was discussing her frustrations with her friends Colleen Ferguson and Janice Spollen, also mothers with young children. Ferguson’s brother-in-law had been in Special Forces and came back from Iraq in January. “Every night we prayed for Uncle Billy and the soldiers,” said Ferguson. Now, she and her friends were looking for something their children could “physically do” to connect to the soldiers abroad. Savage’s sister is married to Chris Payant, an army captain and company commander of Bravo Company, 54th Engineer Battalion, 130th Engineer Brigade. The three mothers decided they would send care packages to the soldiers under his command.

They dubbed the effort “A Time to Say Thanks,” and coordinated with First Sergeant Sean Reilly to ask each platoon to make a wish list of items they’d like from home. In the meantime, the mothers began soliciting donations through the Mothers’ Group at Good Shepherd Catholic Church and St. Aidan’s Day School.

The wish lists that came back from Iraq included “things we never would have thought of,” said Ferguson. She mentioned beef jerky. Other items on the list included Starburst candies, Cup O’ Noodles” instant noodles, frisbees, q-tips, baseball gloves, DVD’s, and videogames. “To get the specific list, that was key for us,” said Ferguson, “that was special.”

To make the effort even “more real,” according to Ferguson, the mothers printed out a picture of soldiers from the company and asked teachers at St. Aidan’s to pass it around to every student. The students were then given the task of creating personal bookmarks for all 110 soldiers. One side of the bookmark was printed with “Bulldogs rock the house,” the company’s cheer. The children were free to decorate the other side with their names and the name of the soldier.

Personalizing each soldier’s care package was the heart of the effort. The mothers wanted not only to send coveted items from home, they wanted the children to send the message that “someone thought about you. Someone cares about you. Someone is happy that you chose to do this with your life so that we could be safe,” explained Ferguson.

The mothers had no idea when they began how much they would actually be able to put in the bags. But news of the project spread by email and word-of-mouth, and checks began arriving every day. “A Time to Say Thanks” ultimately raised about $3,000. Savage, Spollen and Ferguson were able to buy every item on every wish list. “We never thought we’d get $3,000,” said Savage. “I think people don’t know how to show their support, and when you show them a way, they want to take that opportunity.”

AFTER A MEGA shopping expedition to Costco, the three mothers and their seven children began filling 120 bags, 110 personalized for every soldier in the company and some extras for any “new guy” that might have joined. They also made three boxes, one for each platoon, with everything on their wish-lists.

One logistical detail – the actual transport of all the boxes to Iraq – turned out to be remarkably simple. “The stars were all aligned,” wrote Reilly in an email. Because of a St. Aidan’s teacher who was married to an admiral, the boxes flew with Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. On April 24, Savage was told that the boxes needed to be at Andrews Air Force Base. On April 26, while Rumsfeld and Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice were making a surprise address to troops and meeting with newly confirmed Iraqi officials, the boxes from Stratford Landing were being unloaded. They reached the soldiers on May 9, almost exactly the half-way point of Bravo Company’s one year tour.

Savage described her children’s amazement at seeing photographs of packages they had helped to pack in their basement now surrounded by soldiers in Iraq. Spollen recalled “putting the names of the soldiers on the bags. We had the bags out in front of us. Looking out at the sea of bags, that got to me.”

One bag did not go to Iraq. A care package marked “Crystal” is waiting in Savage’s home. Savage was told that the woman to whom it is addressed was injured in combat and lost her leg. She has been medically evacuated to Walter Reed Hospital. Savage is working to bring the last care package to its soldier. She hopes to say “thank you” in person.