America Supports You: 'Tight-Knit' Group Supports Troops Worldwide
By Capt. Steve Alvarez, USA
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Jun. 22, 2005 Just a month after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, Ellen Harpin sat in her Florida home and began to knit a pair of slippers for a sailor aboard the USS Bataan. The sailor had responded to an "any sailor" letter and had asked Harpin, an avid knitter, if she'd make her a pair of slippers.
Soon, others sharing the sailor's berthing were asking for slippers too, and Harpin found herself with a request for 60 pairs of slippers. Unable to fulfill the request by herself, she enlisted the help of her online friends, and soon she was able to fill the sailors' requests.
Word spread around the ship and beyond, and soon other ships learned of Harpin's knitted goods and the demand increased. Before long, Harpin's informal knitting group, which had been dubbed the "Bataan Project," became the "Ships Project" to reflect the group's growing support for sailors aboard U.S. Navy ships.
Today, Harpin's network of knitters has reached beyond naval vessels and provided handmade items to more than 156,000 deployed military personnel since the program started. "Harpin's heroes" are located in every state, as well as a few countries overseas, and the group is bound together not just by their passion for knitting, but also by their commitment to supporting the troops.
"Vietnam was my generation's war," Harpin said. "The way those in uniform were treated was appalling. ... Never again after Vietnam would I let Americans in uniform feel forgotten. We may not reach everyone, but it isn't for lack of trying."
Harpin's all-volunteer crew, now numbering more than 1,200, has sent hats, gloves, slippers, "cool ties" and other items to more than 90 ships. The network stays connected using the Internet and e-mail. This month, Harpin said, the group shipped more than 4,400 items.
The tightly-knit group has touched military personnel in Iraq at Logistics Support Area Anaconda; Balad, K-2, and Al Udeid air bases; Multinational Security Transition Command Iraq; Multinational Force Iraq; Multinational Corps Iraq; forward operating bases Danger, Diamondback, Warrior, Cobra, and Speicher; camps Bucca, Liberty, and Lima; and the Butler Range Complex; as well as Task Force Storm, and units in Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, Pakistan and Jordan. The list continues to grow, and the group has even provided their goods to military hospitals throughout the theater.
"We get no government assistance, nor have we asked for any," Harpin said. Her network has incurred costs of more than $100,000 in postage, raw materials and packing supplies. "Almost all of it is provided by the volunteers. We've had some donations from veterans groups, a pest control company in Chicago, and others, but most of it comes directly from those who make the items," she added.
For those who can only offer their time, other volunteers in the group provide free materials to those with limited financial resources, Harpin said.
Harpin, the wife of a navy veteran, packs, sorts, repacks and mails every box that is shipped to military personnel overseas. She estimates she spends at least 24-30 hours a week on the project.
"Nothing we do in life is more important than what we do for others," Harpin said. "What keeps me going are the photos, the notes, and just knowing that we're making a difference."
The project's most notable moment came when Harpin saw a picture of comedian Robin Williams entertaining the troops around Christmas 2003. He was with soldiers from a Florida unit, and he was wearing one of the project's handmade hats.
"That got everyone really excited," Harpin said.
The knitters' most popular items are regulation fleece and knit hats that can be worn by personnel in uniform during the winter months and the immensely popular "cool ties," wraps that are soaked in water and tied around soldiers' necks or heads. Special beads inside the wrap cool the troops during the grueling summer months, where temperatures can reach 130 degrees in the shade.
"Ellen Harpin's organization provided us with some great comfort items when it mattered most," U.S. Army Maj. Elton Johnson said. Johnson, an Army Reservist who spent several months in Iraq as an adviser with Multinational Security Transition Command Iraq, said the cool ties helped him survive the long summer months.
"I traveled a lot in Iraq, and those ties kept me cool. Heat trauma is a serious threat over there, and those things were lifesavers during my tour in the war," Johnson said. "I often wore one when working out in the 24-hour gym behind the palace. In fact, I still have some ties which I use when I work out at the gym here back at home."
"Right from the start, I've told people that I don't care if they support the war or not. ... What matters is that these are Americans in uniform, and we owe it to them to support them every way we can," Harpin said.
And Harpin understands the need for operational security. She works exclusively with a point of contact in a unit and doesn't share the contact's information or mailing address with her volunteers. E-mails, letters, and photos are shared, but the individual's contact information is removed before it is posted to the group's Web site or before a message is sent via e-mail to all of her volunteers.
"Most points of contact provide us with the names of their replacements and contact me with names of friends who deploy," Harpin said. "My living room wall is a mass of photos, plaques, flags, certificates, and souvenirs. My favorite mug says, 'Happiness is Balad, Iraq in my rearview mirror.'"
Harpin's volunteers range in age, she said, from as young as 8 years old to as old as 90. And the rewards each volunteer receives, while not monetary, are as diverse as their ages.
"I especially love hearing that items went right away and a unit were all seen wearing items, or that the cool ties made an immediate impact in comfort level," Beth Koskie said. "The very best is seeing photos of the guys and gals in their items," the Minnesotan added.
Birgitt Noble, an "Air Force brat from many years ago" who lost one of her brothers in Vietnam, said she wishes she could do more for the troops than the 20 to 40 hours per week she devotes to knitting hats and slippers.
"I think that they are glad that someone thinks of them and that they aren't doing this all for nothing," Noble said. "I know that many may not have families or be very young and no matter what your age, it is hard to be away from home and in a foreign land."
Joan Roddy's husband served in the Navy during World War II, and she said he has a good idea about how hot it is in Southwest Asia since he served in the south Pacific. Roddy and her husband and a small group spend 60-70 hours per week on knitting projects.
"My grandmother taught me to knit and crochet before I was a teenager nearly 70 years ago, and I've been doing it ever since," Roddy said. "When I was younger, during and after the depression, no one had any money, so we would make things for our own use as well as gifts," she added.
Roddy's husband told her that during his naval stint, many service people never received anything from home, not even letters. Roddy wanted to remedy that situation for this generation's service personnel.
"I'll do my best to correct that in my own small way," Roddy said.
Service personnel from all over the world have written Harpin and sent her pictures sporting her organization's products. This week an Air Force officer wrote her and said that they had tried everything to alleviate the discomfort caused by the heat and that the cool ties did just that.
"It's just an awesome honor to be able to make a difference. I never lose sight of the fact that no matter what is going on here we are safe because of today's servicemembers and those who went before." Harpin said.
"I'll do this until they bury me. The financial reward is non-existent, but the emotional, spiritual are unparalleled. We owe our freedom to those serving, and our hope is that we can help them see how much they are appreciated," Harpin said.
(Army Capt. Steve Alvarez wore cool ties provided by the Ships Project during the summer months and knitted socks and fleece hats in the winter months during his deployment in Iraq.)