At the time, Julie Pearson just wanted to do something for her fiance, who was beginning his second tour of Iraq. With her mother, Virginia, she put together 32 Christmas stockings stuffed with 420 pounds of snacks, toiletries and other items and sent them to her fiance to share with his unit.
The idea of sending care packages to troops stationed in a combat zone snowballed. Donations came in and volunteers showed up to help pack boxes. Since its beginning in November 2004, Operation Sandbox-Georgia has reached more than 86,000 men and women from across the United States serving overseas, said Virginia Pearson, co-founder and president of Operation Sandbox-Georgia.
The name Operation Sandbox-Georgia [operationsandboxga.com] came from veterans, Pearson said, who claimed serving in Iraq was like being in a sandbox. Now a nonprofit organization, Operation Sandbox has moved its operations from a small church to the National Guard Armory in Covington and continues sending boxes to troops serving in combat zones, mainly in Afghanistan.
"I did it at first to support my daughter," Virginia Pearson said. "I wanted to let troops know that I appreciated what they were doing for my freedom. When I got into it, I saw what it meant to the soldiers and their families."
The boxes, which range in size from small to large, can carry anything from coffee, Q-tips, cotton balls, beef jerky, powdered drink mixes and a variety of toiletries, to games, phone cards, blankets, heaters and DVD players. A packet containing a "thank you" letter to the troops and a form that soldiers can fill out to request specific items is also included. Boxes can be individually tailored to meet requests and needs.
"If you have someone serving over there [in a combat zone], all it takes is an email telling us about them and we can send the unit a box," Pearson said. "It doesn't cost you anything."
For the mother of a son who has been on five tours of Iraq and Afghanistan, Operation Sandbox-Georgia is also an expression of support for the families of those with spouses or children serving in a combat zone.
Mary Wolcott, whose son, John, is in the Army and currently stationed at Fort Bragg, N.C., has been helping pack boxes for troops for the last two years.
"Many of the [volunteers] don't' have a relative in the military but they want to show their appreciation," she said. "It's a very good support system, not just for me, but for the troops."
Pearson agrees that it's important to let soldiers and their families know people still care. "I've seen what it's like when my son-in-law went into a combat zone and my daughter worried. Sometimes, she doesn't want to answer the phone or open the door because she's afraid it will be bad news.
Unfortunately, Pearson said, there has been a decline in interest in the project since U.S. troops pulled out of Iraq three years ago. According to military reports earlier this year, there are still 38,000 troops in Afghanistan. The soldiers, she said, "tell us they so appreciate knowing people still think of them.
"We always pray over our boxes," she said, "and we always take mail from children and others who want to express their gratitude for the sacrifices our troops are making."
Pearson said there is a need for beef jerky, Slim Jims, mouthwash, toothpaste, travel size baby wipes, individually packed peanuts, hard candy, deodorant, lip balm, dental floss, flavored drink singles and individual microwaveable meals. Left over Halloween candy can be donated as well.
Volunteers meet at the National Guard Armory on Carroll Street in Covington on Wednesday mornings, packing boxes and getting them ready to mail from 9 a.m. to noon.
"I would love to see more people help," Wolcott said. "Everyone talks about supporting the military and this is a great way to do it, even if they can only come once a month.
"When you get the thank you notes [from the soldiers], that's payment enough," she said.
Operation Sandbox-Georgia serves not only troops in all branches of the military from the state, but from around the country.
For more information about Operation Sandbox-Georgia, visit the website or send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. A list of requested items is also available for download at Operation Sandbox-Georgia's web site.