Just some soap, shampoo – a candy bar, even – from someone back home can bring a smile to the face of a soldier who comes under fire every day, or a note that says, “We’re thinking about you.”
Over the past six months, a growing network of people at the University, UNC Hospitals and in the local community has sent about 1,500 pounds of these types of items in nearly 100 care packages to troops in hot zones in Iraq, letting them know that they are not forgotten.
“I’ve never done or been involved with anything that has quite this reach and impact,” said Robert Connolly, an associate professor in UNC’s Kenan-Flagler Business School, who coordinates the effort.
It all started with one e-mail message Connolly sent last Thanksgiving to a listserv for his neighborhood in northern Chapel Hill. His daughter had seen a clip on TV about Any Soldier. The organization matches its contact soldiers in the field with folks in the states who want to send care packages. The organization emphasizes soldiers who don’t get much mail – hence, its name.
Connolly, who teaches applied microeconomics, asked in his e-mail whether his neighbors would like to drop off used paperbacks and hotel-sized toiletries for him to send.
That one message spread like a sandstorm, netting the 1,500 pounds of supplies and about 16 dozen cookies from the Great Harvest Bread Co., which Connolly mailed recently. Great Harvest plans to keep up the shipments.
Connolly’s e-mails with military contacts eventually connected him with Col. Todd Ebel, commander of the second brigade of the 101st Airborne Division in Baghdad. Turned out the two had more in common than supporting the troops.
On May 14, both of their oldest daughters graduated from UNC: Connolly’s daughter, Renée, with a master’s degree in business administration, and Brooke Ebel with a bachelor’s degree in psychology.
When Ebel learned he could get leave for his daughter’s Commencement, the Connollys invited the Ebels to lunch at their house on Commencement Sunday.
All this from just one e-mail last November. “The first person who showed up after that e-mail was the uncle of a soldier in Iraq,” Connolly said. “He had a dozen paperbacks.
“Before another week was done, we had heard from in the neighborhood of 100 households. Ten or 15 of them dropped off so much stuff that the first 18 boxes we sent weighed 100 pounds. And it just keeps coming.”
Now, parts of Bob and Cindy Connolly’s home look like a warehouse. She handles finances – they pay to ship the packages. The flag of the Army’s 101st Airborne Division flies above their home, denoting the unit in which one of their sons-in-law serves in Iraq.
Connolly practically needs an organizational chart to keep track of everyone he calls “co-conspirators.” One of his neighbors, Mary Beck, took the appeal to work. She is a senior vice president at UNC Hospitals
“People brought in books, personal care items, CDs and magazines,” Beck said. She has taken two loads of hospital employees’ donations to the Connollys; her colleagues are still collecting.
“What Bob and Cindy are doing is just really cool,” Beck said. “Everyone wants to help, and we don’t know how. They make it easy for us.”
Next, Connolly put a note on the announcement board for MBA students at Kenan-Flagler. “They’ve jumped all over this,” he said. “They drop off donations in a colleague’s office, Barbara Ann Aversano. She’s my loyal co-conspirator.”
Aversano, of the MBA admissions office, made a label for the packages: “It has a star and an American flag on it. It says, ‘Thanks for your service to our country, from the faculty, students, staff and Military Veterans Club at Kenan-Flagler Business School at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.”
MBA student Mac Bergson, a Korean War veteran and president of the veterans club, put the word out to the club; more donations came in. “They’re bringing in paperbacks, little tubes of toothpaste and stuffed animals and coloring books,” Aversano said. “The troops use those to give to the children over there.”
The Connollys go to church at the Newman Catholic Student Center Parish at UNC. Twenty-four hours after Father Phillip Leach announced their project from pulpit, “I brought home six shopping bags of stuff from there,” Connolly said. “I’m not surprised about them, but I’m amazed at some of the other people who give.”
He described a young MBA student: “Every time she shows up, she has a huge shopping bag, probably $50 worth of stuff. She gives repeatedly.” She’s paying graduate school tuition, he said, so “this is not trivial. It’s something that impacts her budget.”
Another student, Roger Stankavish, asked, “Would you mind if I put this on e-mail to my neighborhood?” Guess who lives there? Bob Krueger, owner of Great Harvest. Soon, Connolly was picking up cookies.
“We sent them to a unit in one of the ugliest fights in all of Iraq – in Ramadi,” he said. He e-mailed contacts on site about how many boxes to look for.
Just as he pressed “Send,” he learned later, the recipients were under heavy fire. Two soldiers were wounded but will recover. The Americans also had to defend against three snipers who were moving into position to fire on the unit.
“This is the daily life we live here in . Eastern Ramadi,” Capt. Joe Claburn, commander of C Company, 1st Battalion, 506th Infantry Regiment, e-mailed to Connolly. “Thank you for taking the time to tell the story of these men who fight bravely every day… Your service to the soldiers is admirable.”
Claburn said he has mailed Connolly a battered American flag that flew outside his command post in Iraq, to present to Krueger in appreciation. Connolly wrote back: “You made my day! The reason for the care package project is to lift burdens and raise spirits for our troops in the field. If our respect for the sacrifices made by you and your soldiers is apparent in these small contributions, we have been compensated a hundred-fold.”