Thursday, December 24, 2009

Minnesotans Pack Cookies for Deployed Soldiers

By Army Sgt. Benjamin R. Kibbey
Special to American Forces Press Service

Dec. 24, 2009 - Mention "Sweet Martha's Cookie Jar" around a native Minnesotan in Iraq, and you're almost guaranteed a glazed-eyed expression and rambling murmurs of longing. Say "10,000 cookies" right after, and you might need to find them a chair. Yet, that's the number of cookies volunteers from several charitable and patriotic organizations – and many Sweet Martha's employees – gathered Dec. 19 to pack up and send to troops deployed to Operation Iraqi Freedom with the Minnesota National Guard's 34th Infantry Division.

As part of the event, soldiers here hopped on Skype and got a chance to ogle the buckets as they were being prepared.

Volunteers from all over participated on the Minnesota side. Cadets from St. Thomas Academy in Mendota Heights, Minn. – where the event was held – pitched in and even added notes to each package for the soldiers.

Members of the Minnesota Patriot Guard – the Minnesota-based arm of the Patriot Guard Riders, who attend funerals of servicemembers – shared table space with Blue Star Moms, a service organization of military mothers. They were joined by local members of the Vietnams Veterans Association and local exchange clubs.

Even board member Bill Popp of the National Basketball Association's Minnesota Timberwolves showed up to support the troops and say a few words over Skype.

Army Spc. LaFena Washington, a human resources specialist from Minnetonka, Minn., said she was especially touched by the singing and guitar playing of Joshua Revak, himself a veteran of recent conflicts. Revak serenaded several of the soldiers over Skype, and spent a considerable amount of time at the Skype terminal chatting with and singing to them.

It was the first time Washington had ever used Skype, she said. That Saturday night, if not for a friend encouraging her to come participate, otherwise would have been a movie and popcorn night.

"I'm so glad I did this," she said after passing the headset on to the next soldier. "It was worth missing movie night. The fact they had a veteran playing for us really stood out, and that people took time out to come over and talk to us. I was really impressed."

Army Staff Sgt. Paul Gudding, who works in the 34th Infantry Division's personnel section, followed Washington.

"It was just nice to see that a bunch of people got on," said the Moorhead, Minn. native. "It was a little hometown experience."

Organizer Brad Walton said the event carried on a tradition started in 2006 when a Marine returning soon to Iraq called in to his radio show on WCCO in Minneapolis. When Walton asked him what he could do to help the troops, the Marine simply replied, "Chocolate chip cookies."

Walton immediately thought of Sweet Martha's Cookie Jar, and owner Martha Rossini-Olson jumped at the idea, Walton said.

That first batch saw 10,000 cookies heading out to the troops, and now another 10,000 are shipping overseas.

"About a month ago, as I thought of you and the Red Bulls and all the troops, I reflected back to 2006 and the cookies for the troops," Walton wrote in an e-mail to Army Chaplain (Lt. Col) John Morris, 34th Infantry Division chaplain, in early December. "I called Martha Rossini of Sweet Martha fame and asked her if she was once again up for doing what we did with the Blue Star Moms and all back in 2006."

Of course, her enthusiasm for the idea was as great in 2009 as in 2006. They would even throw in an added bonus, Walton noted in the e-mail: milk.

Gudding was happy at the idea of the milk when volunteers showed it off to him over Skype. "It'll be nice to have some real milk," he said.

In the end, it comes down to basic gratitude, on both ends.

"We are all so indebted to all of you for your service," Walton said, with Rossini-Olson nodding agreement next to him. "It's just our way of saying thank you."

On the other end, once those cookies have reached the troops, the volunteers and organizers are sure to have that thank you returned to them, perhaps not 10,000 times in words, but certainly in 10,000 moments of enjoyment.

(Army Sgt. Benjamin R. Kibbey serves in Multinational Division South.)

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