Sunday, December 20, 2009

Care Package Pitfalls (Babble)

This is a post I wanted to make sure to write while my husband is still visiting before he ships out to Iraq soon.  This is not me speculating about this topic, this is me reporting what some actual soldiers think while I have one reading over my shoulder to make sure I’m being accurate.  So here it is:

Many care packages sent to soldiers overseas are well-intentioned but lousy.  It’s a harsh truth I haven’t seen addressed anywhere, because I know nobody wants to make a person feel bad for trying to do something so nice, but in many cases all the time and effort and expense put into care packages for soldiers could be better spent elsewhere.

I’m not talking about personal packages to specific soldiers.  My husband loves getting articles from my dad and cookies from my kids and amusing things from my brothers and letters from me.  That’s all fine.  Pieces of home are a welcome distraction and a reminder of what’s important.  No, the care packages I’m talking about are the ones organized by churches and classrooms and local businesses and scout troops.  By people who want to do something because they have good hearts and want to make someone in a tough situation feel a little better. 

That’s such a lovely thought that I’m sure people will think I’m a monster for even suggesting that there could be anything negative to this, but here is the part those people don’t consider:  Someone, somewhere is risking his or her life to deliver that package.  Notes from strangers and decks of cards and flavoring for coffee are not worth that risk.  I even make sure to consolidate as much as I can into a single package when I mail things to Iraq because I don’t want that on my conscience.  I plan for a package every six weeks or so, mostly with a DVD of the kids and some of their art and some cookies for him to share and any letters anyone wants to add.  As sweet as it sounds to send a little note every day or every week, I see that as profoundly selfish and irresponsible.   The only kind of regular communication I try to keep up with is email.  it’s erratic, but it poses no one any harm.

There is probably a soldier who doesn’t get mail who likes these random boxes, but I’ve never met one.  I would love to make you a list of useful items that any soldier would be happy to get while deployed, but I can’t name any.  Friends and family sent my husband some books last time that I know he appreciated, but so much of what gets sent there has to be abandoned.  It’s a hard place to keep anything with you, and a lot of things aren’t worth shipping back home.

So where would people’s good will and fund raising efforts be better spent if they want to really support the troops?

The best services offered to Ian while he was deployed were through the USO.  They understood what soldiers really needed better than anyone.  The USO, besides putting on shows, also provides internet cafes so soldiers can stay in touch with home better, recreation tents for when they have down time, and little lounges at major airports so they can relax while in uniform with a bit more privacy.  Ian said these things have been crucial to helping soldiers preserve their sanity and have helped far more than any random package ever did.  If you want to help soldiers, the USO is a worthy place to volunteer or put your money.

And many soldiers will tell you their real worries aren’t for themselves anyway, but for their families back home.  Anything you can do to help out the family of a soldier is the real gift, because they can’t be there to do it themselves.  Ian is happier and better able to focus on his job if he knows the kids and I are okay.  War may be hell, but it’s apparently nothing compared to feeling helpless after a call to your loved ones and finding out something is wrong and there’s nothing you can do.

I know it sounds self serving for me to say ‘if you mow my lawn you’re helping your country,’ but honestly, I don’t even care if I’m the one who gets help.  There are people in need all around us all the time.  Help someone nearby instead of helping the idea of someone far away.  Maybe if all of us did more of that there would be less need to deploy soldiers at all.

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