Between now and Aug. 30, Diana Pitts is trying to collect as much beef jerky as she can.
It is her son's favorite item on the list of toiletries, food and creature comfort donations Pitts is gathering to send to Afghanistan. She's hoping to get so much he "won't want to see beef jerky again in his life."
With her son, Jeremy, and a son-in-law, Brandon, just beginning their first deployment with the Combat Aviation Brigade, Pitts wanted to show her support, but was unsure how. David Unger, her other son, killed while deployed in Iraq in 2006, never complained about shortages, never mentioned anything he needed.
By tapping into the local and national network of Gold Star (families of military members who died while serving) and Blue Star (families of military members currently serving during wartime), Pitts learned first-hand about soldiers doing without.
"I never knew of the need. I just always thought, 'Oh, it would be something from home,' — its not just something from home."
She heard stories from recently returned veterans of stalled supply lines, leading to shortages of basics — combs, brushes, laundry detergent – and a need she could help fill.
"I heard of one instance where the supply trucks couldn't get through and troops on the other side of the supply blockage line, and they had nothing. I'm trying to help."
Pitts started with a list of the most-requested and needed items and began to hit Facebook and her email list.
She sent out requests for, among other things, sunflower seeds, protein bars, packaged Rice Krispie Treats, Frisbees, and bug spray.
Mindy King, a female veteran and Blue Star family member (her husband is serving now) from Fort Reilly, let her know that women soldiers' needs were often neglected in "care packages," so Pitts made sure her list included items like bobby pins and feminine hygiene products.
It was also important to figure out what wasn't needed.
Apparently, microwave popcorn and hot chocolate mix is bountiful, so they were off the list.
Pitts set up collection locations around the area — at the Fort Leavenworth Chapel where she works, at a local dentist office, Gary's Military Memorabilia shop, as well as with friends in Shawnee, Kan., and Blue Springs, Mo.
She had friends in Fort Reilly and Gardner help spread the word, and began asking businesses in the area for additional donations. One of her big "gets" has been more than a dozen boxes of sunscreen and lip balm donated by 70 Mary Kay distributors.
"We've really tried to turn it into — 'we' being me and a bunch of other veterans and veterans' families I've been involved with — we've tried to turn it around into more of a community effort. To let them know that their community cares and remembers. We're not just a city sitting south of Fort Leavenworth.
Page 2 of 3 - "We remember the sacrifices of David and Billy Mulvihill and Courtney Finch and Ricky Rodgers and all of those from Leavenworth that have fallen in service to our nation.
"And that we remember Jeremy and Brandon and everybody else that is over there right now."
She's now up to 35 boxes full, and counting.
Collecting is just the first step. Pitts has also been learning tricks — like double wrapping easy-to-break mini-bottles of shampoo — and compression strategies to fit as much as possible into the flat-rate, large-size Priority Mail post office boxes she is using for shipping. Each box will cost $16.85 to ship, so she's collecting donations for shipping from people who cannot provide items from the list.
She will stop collecting on Aug. 30. Then, the boxes will go to Jeremy, Brandon, and three other friends also serving in Afghanistan.
The idea was to reach as many service members in as many areas as possible.
"You know, yes, I'm doing this because of my boys," Pitts said, "but the one thing that really helps my heart is that I am sending it to Jeremy, Brian, Beau, and another private … so I'm not just sending this to Jeremy and Brandon."
"Each of these soldiers at different (forward operating) bases in Afghanistan, now there's five. They're going to distribute the things. Not just hoard it, distribute it. And they're going to know it came from Leavenworth and surrounding areas."
Pitts's plans aren't finished when the boxes ship, she's also organizing a "Bake and Ship" where "everyone brings a box, and gets together and talks and bakes and packs and ships," for October.
And she's working with Fort Leavenworth staff, the Leavenworth VFW 56 and American Legion Post 370 in Overland Park, to put together a "Make and Take" workshop on Nov. 16.
Kids from Fort Reilly and Fort Leavenworth who either have a deployed parent or who have lost parent will be invited to make crafts that can be wrapped and given or sent as Christmas presents.
"It is because of my deceased son that I know we need to support those that are living, because they are doing without."
"I hear a lot of families say "I do this because he would want me to do this. Well I don't know if David would want me to do everything I'm doing with the deceased fallen, but I can honestly say this would be something he would want me to do — he would want me to support Jeremy and Brandon and everybody that's there, because he loves them. And they were him seven years ago."
If you would like to join Diana Pitts's collection campaign or help with the later events, you can find more information on her Facebook page, or by emailing her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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