Moms Across America Adopt Troops Deployed Overseas
Diana Berardocco, Deployment Health Support Directorate, Office of the Special Assistant to the Under Secretary of Defense (Personnel and Readiness) for Gulf War Illnesses, Medical Readiness and Military Deployments in cooperation with the Defense Technical Information Center . http://deploymentlink.osd.mil/
December 17, 2001 - WASHINGTON ( DeploymentLINK ) -
"You have renewed a belief in an old soldier and a great deal of young ones that we are not forgotten. Every soldier looks forward to mail call as it's a rather sacred tradition in the military. But it's a tradition that can bring happiness as well as sadness. You have continued to bring happiness into the lives of my soldiers. For that I am eternally grateful." Sentiments such as this one from a first sergeant serving with the 529th Military Police Company in Kosovo give Ida Hägg and her dedicated army of volunteers the energy to sustain AdoptaPlatoon.
AdoptaPlatoon is a soldier-support grassroots effort that provides morale-lifting mail and care package support to more than 10,000 service members deployed overseas. "I never tire of reminding people that our soldiers do not deserve to be forgotten and that they need us," said Hägg, an 11th-grade English teacher from Rio Hondo, Texas, whose son just completed a four-year enlistment in the U.S. Army.
It was her son's deployment with the 4th Battalion, 5th Air Defense Artillery Regiment to Camp Dobol, Bosnia, in 1998 that stirred her patriotic duty and motherly compassion. "My son would write or make quick calls and tell me about the nine soldiers in his platoon who stood for mail call every day, and every day nothing came," Hägg recalled. "These soldiers were 18-, 19- and 20-year-olds, like my son. He asked if I would send some cards and goodies to them, and not forget them during the holidays that were coming." Hägg responded to her son's request.
And then she decided to try to find nine other mothers who would each adopt one of the soldiers. Within a week, each soldier had a mom who pledged her support. Several weeks later, the platoon leader sent Hägg an e-mail message stating that morale for those nine had so significantly changed that perhaps she could perform the same miracle for the entire platoon, an organizational unit that generally consists of 10 to 40 soldiers.
Using the resources in her community including local schools, churches and businesses, 4-H Clubs, Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, she quickly linked her son's entire platoon and additional Camp Dobol soldiers with a community eager to express support. When interest soon outpaced her source of soldiers, Hägg wrote to Maj. General Kevin Byrnes, commander of U.S. Forces in Bosnia, and described the outpouring of community support for the young men and women. Impressed with her success, Byrnes approved the linkage of soldiers from the 82nd Field Artillery stationed at Eagle Base Camp in Bosnia with supporters - just in time for Christmas 1998. Less than two years later, the program had grown from the initial nine to 10,000 soldiers.
"I kept linking support and it grew from there. I never dreamed it would be what we have today," said Hägg, who marked the program's third anniversary in September. While most AdoptaPlatoon support requests come from Kosovo and Bosnia, the program also links soldiers in Macedonia, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, and has sent support to soldiers via the American Red Cross on special projects in the Balkans and at Camp Stanley, Korea.
"We've helped every branch of the services who have requested our assistance," said Hägg, noting that an Air Force staff sergeant serves on the five-member board of directors. During the last three years, approximately 20,000 supporters have adopted or corresponded with a soldier.
Named AdoptaPlatoon by the soldiers themselves, the program is managed primarily through e-mail communication between Hägg, her board of directors and 20 volunteer mothers who assist with database and web site content and link other mothers, grandmothers, families, pen-pals, churches, schools, civic organizations and companies to deployed soldiers. The program encourages families to support soldiers in the form of an "adoption" and offers single people the opportunity to support single soldiers through a pen-pal arrangement. Support consists of sending a weekly, cheerful card or letter, acknowledging a soldier's birthday, and sending at least one care-package per month. Care packages usually contain hard candies, gum and cookies that a soldier can share with the entire platoon. A year ago the organization created a special type of support person - the "Platoon Mom" - who embraces an entire platoon of deployed soldiers and rallies support for her adopted platoon within her local community.
Currently, there are almost 100 volunteer mothers in approximately 20 states who support entire platoons. "The Platoon Mom is a very special person. She meets a rigorous interview and screening process," said Hägg, noting that a "Mom" may be single or divorced and must be at least 30 years of age. "They support a platoon soldier or soldiers during one rotation, which usually lasts four to six months. They also communicate with the platoon leader to determine the needs of the platoon as a whole."
Hägg emphasized the care she and Fran Dobson, known as the Platoon Mom Commander, take in admitting a potential Platoon Mom into the program. "We are very overprotective of our soldiers," she said, explaining that since the recent anthrax scare, volunteers are working harder to verify information and perform follow-up phone calls. Hägg stresses that the program wants sincere and committed supporters who consider their efforts a "gift we give ourselves."
AdoptaPlatoon Moms effusively share what the program means to them. "I will tell you something, without ever seeing one of them in person, or ever even knowing what most of them look or sound like, I love each of my adopted soldiers as if they were my own." said New Jersey Platoon Mom Rose Podolsky. Platoon Mom Elaine Harmon, another New Jersey resident and retired first grade teacher, became involved with the program two years ago after a friend forwarded an e-mail about AdoptaPlatoon. Starting first with a small platoon, Harmon's support has extended to several hundred soldiers, including 150 service members from Alpha Company, 201st Forward Support Battalion serving in Kosovo. Her ongoing dedication to the soldiers led to an invitation to attend the change-of-command ceremony in Vilseck, Germany, for the commander of the 201st Logistics Task Force. While in Germany, she had the emotionally gratifying experience of visiting with many of her adopted soldiers. "You know you are making a difference in the lives of these soldiers, especially the lonely ones," Harmon said. "You send them things, anything that will brighten their day and make them smile."
The AdoptaPlatoon program makes a difference in the lives of students who participate as well. Harmon regularly visits the classroom of a friend and teacher to assist the children with preparing the letters, cards, holiday greetings and gifts they send overseas to Harmon's adopted platoon. She said she believes in teaching kids to be patriotic; and the kids enjoy the program immensely. The program has also helped Nancy Parra's sixth grade Lowell Elementary class to see beyond the boundaries of Mesa, Ariz. When the class adopted a staff sergeant attached to the 101st Airborne in Kosovo two years ago, Parra developed a world studies curriculum to solidify the educational experience. "We studied the region of Kosovo and Bosnia, wrote a class book for the district writing contest that described what the soldiers are doing there, and tackled issues like religious tolerance and how it related to our civil rights movement," she explained. To develop her class's writing skills, she taught the elements of the writing process as her children drafted letters to their adopted soldier. The staff sergeant reciprocated by sending pictures and writing personal letters to every child in the class. "We sent a care package every month with candy or a pair of new socks and things that would help to make his deployment easier," she said. "The children were very motivated that they were taking care of somebody else. For them, that's a first, and they really liked that role."
Sometimes the interaction becomes even more personal. The sixth graders' most recent adopted soldier often exchanges e-mail with the students from Kosovo answering questions such as "Who does your laundry?" and "What kind of food do you eat there?" While on leave to visit his family in New Mexico this past summer, he made a special journey - driving from New Mexico to Arizona - to visit the class. The kids were absolutely thrilled, Parra recalled. From the exchange of correspondence, the Lowell elementary schoolchildren learned about the needs and hardships of the children in Kosovo. "Our teachers organized a drive and the school sent packages of pens, pencils and other school supplies to Kosovo, and the children felt good about doing that," Parra said. "We've developed many projects from soldiers requests or needs," said Hägg.
Two years ago, when a Military Police Battalion deployed to Bosnia needed crayons for coloring books that the Army wanted to give the Bosnian schools, they contacted AdoptaPlatoon. The organization created "Operation Crayon," and in 30 days volunteers delivered enough crayons to fill an Army supply truck. Today, "Operation Crayon" assists the soldiers' efforts to help children in the war-torn region by supplying Bosnian and Kosovo schools and orphanages with items such as winter clothing, socks, undergarments, school supplies and other necessities. "When we support our soldiers' humanitarian efforts, it helps raise their morale," said Hägg. "They love to provide aid to the children who are the real victims of the war."
Corporate America has also embraced the program. Southwest Airlines recently approved a company-wide, AdoptaPlatoon effort which links 250 soldiers with thousands of employees and employee groups in their 59 airport stations and other departments nationwide. "Supporting the troops is of utmost importance to us," said Lacey Waldrep, a Southwest Airlines customer relations representative. She said employees are placing boxes in their work areas to fill with magazines, snacks and candies to send to the troops. The ripple effect has been enormous and employees' families, friends and church groups have expressed interest in sending mail and care packages. As a non-profit organization, the primary challenge for AdoptaPlatoon is raising the necessary funding to maintain the growing support flowing to the soldiers, said Hägg.
Buster Dobson, a "Platoon Dad," oversees fundraising responsibilities to meet the immediate requirement for administrative, grant-writing and computer-based resources. "We all work out of our homes. We don't have a big copier and my e-mails smoke-out a printer every three months," Hägg continued. "We have grown so big so fast our greatest need is a paid staff." In June 2001, the organization was awarded a $2,500 grant by the jointly sponsored Fisher House Foundation, the Military Times Media Group and Newman's Own, an organization headed by actor Paul Newman, for its innovative program to improve military quality of life. The Veterans of the Vietnam War, Inc., has recently offered to provide assistance with software and databases. The organization also receives many small donations in the mail.
Transcending present concerns and leaning towards the spiritual for a moment, Hägg said she feels the project is blessed. "We have so many dedicated people reaching out to make a difference in the lives of our soldiers who are as passionate as I am about AdoptaPlatoon. The reward we receive is beyond words," said Hägg. Message from the AAP Board: For information on how to become a Platoon Mom or Dad, how you or your organization can adopt a soldier or military unit or assist in our mission, please review our website.