freedom is not free {thanking our military}

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We hear that statement a lot.  But it should never be taken for granted because the freedoms, liberties and values we hold dear as Americans have always come on the backs of those who have and still have the courage to lead, sacrifice and serve…and their families.  I come from a long line of servicemen and women, and civil servants who, in different capacities, support our military.  A couple of years ago, while listening to Whatever, with Jennifer Hutt and Alexis Stewart, I heard about a website called AnySoldier.com, where any member of the military could apply to receive care packages from home.  Alexis, the consummate baker, had put together great boxes of homemade treats to thank troops she did not know but simply had selected from the website.  I thought is was such a great idea, although since I’m one of the worst bakers, my treats would have to be store-bought. But life got in the way and I never really looked at the website until a couple of months ago.  And when I did, what I saw broke my heart.
The list of servicemen and women who had signed their units up to be package recipients was not long…it was huge. They were from all branches of the military serving in many different countries including theaters of war. And what they were requesting nearly made me cry.  Books, magazines, games – anything to help pass the time; healthy snacks; socks; office supplies; toiletries – soap, shampoo, deodorant, feminine hygiene products, toothpaste. How could this be? After reading a handful of member pages, it became clear. Supplies and sundries carried at the post exchanges where our troops are deployed are so limited in quantity that by the time many of our service people can actually get to the store, the basics are sold out. Some troops are so geographically far from the post exchanges that getting basics for their units are hard.  We have the best armed forces in the world and those putting their lives at risk to protect us can’t even get the things you and I take for granted. Lotion and snacks are a luxury but hygiene products are a necessity.  It was time to make a big trip to Costco. 
I decided to send off care packages to two units in Afghanistan, one an Air Force logistics support group and the second, an Army tactical unit.  Each got two boxes: one full of snacks and treats and the other, basics and toiletries.  The logistics unit even asked for more office supplies so they could do their jobs so they also got pens, markers, tape, post its, etc. Buying everything was the easy part; putting the packages together was the time-consuming part.  But it was well worth it and I would do it again in a heartbeat.  And I would encourage anyone out there wanting to do something to thank our troops to send a care package, too.  
This endeavor can be a huge project but don’t be daunted.  This would be a great thing to do as a neighborhood, family, church group or school project. The costs can be divided up and the tasks of putting the boxes together shared. Regardless of what your political view on our current wars is, if you agree that our military fulfills a vital role for our country and its security, this is a wonderful way to say thank you.  Wading through the list of the Any Soldier website requests is easy; wading through all the rules for sending your gifts is a little harder so here are some tips below to help you.  Don’t forget to include a personal note.  You never know…that one handwritten note letting the troops know you’re thinking of them might just make one person’s day. Probably more.
 :: Pack food items separate from toiletries and non-food products;  you’d be surprised how much the smell of something like soap can seep into even double packaged food items.
::  Place liquids like body lotion, shampoo, soap in large ziploc bags in case the original packaging becomes compromised during shipping.
::  Boxes should be smaller than 130″ in total length and girth.   The largest box I used was 20″ x 12″ x 12″ – it held a lot!
::  Boxes need to weigh less than 70 pounds.
::  Pack the boxes well, using newspaper to fill in the gaps between items so things do not get jostled around.   Use heavy duty clear or brown packing tape…and use lots of it.  I taped the tops and bottoms both vertically and horizontally then wrapped one round of tape around the overlapping tails that came down on the sides of the boxes.
::  You will need to fill out a customs form {PS Form 2976-A} for each box.  And when you do so, you’ll need to list all of the items in the box, including their value {whether or not you insure the box, which I didn’t} and their weight.  Most items have a weight listed on their packaging but a simple scale will be helpful.  The USPS’ online form for APO/FPO addresses is not working right now so if you have to get a paper form at the post office, get plenty! You can only list four items per form.  For one box I sent, three forms were needed. No problem, just fill out the main form and at the top write “Additional Forms Enclosed” and then on subsequent forms, line through the bar code and number at the top left and write next to them “Form _ of __”  {Form 2 of 3, Form 3 of 3, etc.}.  Bring all those to the post office and they will put them in a clear shipping envelope for you.
:: To avoid having the package sent back to you in case the service member you are mailing has left country, in Block #10 on the customs form check “Redirect to Address Below” and write in “Addressee’s Commander at the same address.”
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