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Six Military Kids Lead Mom to Start Operation Shoebox

By Kathleen T. Rhem
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Sept. 23, 2004 – Sending care packages to Iraq came naturally to Mary Harper -- she and her husband have five children and a son-in-law on active duty in the Army. And all have spent time deployed for Operation Iraqi Freedom.

Army Spc. Chris Delaney poses for a photo with volunteers packing care packages for troops deployed to Iraq. Delaney was home on rest- and-recuperation leave from Iraq. His mother, Mary Harper, runs Operation Shoebox. Courtesy photo.
(Click photo for screen-resolution image)

"We were sending care packages to our kids," Harper said, in a telephone interview with American Forces Press Service. "And I said to my husband, 'If we can help them, how come we can't help their brothers and sisters in arms?'"

Thus was born Operation Shoebox in the Harpers' living room. More than 20,000 shoeboxes later, the organization has outgrown the Harpers' house and a local storefront in their hometown of Belleview, Fla., and recently set up shop in a 12-by-32-foot "barn-type shed," Harper said.

The group works to send care packages to military servicemembers deployed to Iraq. Most packages are packed in shoeboxes because they're the perfect size, Harper explained. They're small enough to ship easy and not overwhelm the military postal system, and sending several small boxes instead of one big one allows troops to receive individual packages more easily.

Military regulations forbid sending packages addressed to "Any Servicemember," so Operation Shoebox maintains a database of individual troops and their addresses. Servicemembers can sign up to be supported by the organization on the charity group's Web site. Harper said they also get lists of troops from family readiness groups of deployed units.

Currently the group has about 4,500 soldiers on the list. They're working now to make and pack more than 4,000 Christmas stockings to send to Iraq -- roughly double the 2,200 they sent out last year. Harper said they try to avoid packing the Christmas stockings with the personal-care items they pack in routine care packages.

"We want them to have something fun instead of just foodstuffs and stuff we send them regularly," she said.

Operation Shoebox, a licensed nonprofit organization, has a board of directors and an active roster of volunteers, including 140 residents of a local retirement community. "They have really gone gung-ho in helping us," Harper said of the retirement-community residents.

Having six family members in the Army during wartime has not always been easy to handle, Harper admits. "Last year I did go crazy when they were all over there, and there was no way to reach them, no communication or anything like that," she said. "It was really rough."

She professes not to know what motivated most of her family to join the Army. Daughter Becky, now 1st Lt. Rebecca Gregg, started the migration to the Army by enlisting for the education benefits. Her brothers and husband followed suit, Harper said.

Currently, Harper has one son, Spc. Chris Delaney, deployed to Iraq with the 25th Infantry Division out of Hawaii.

Most of the others are stationed in Georgia. Becky, who is a physician assistant; her husband, Capt. Chet Gregg, a military attorney; and her brother, Spc. William "Bobby" Bouma, are all assigned to Fort Stewart. Spc. Shawn Harper, Harper's stepson, is stationed at nearby Hunter Army Air Field.

Another son, Sgt. Sean Delaney, is serving a one-year assignment in Korea.

Sean, Becky and Bobby are all in training preparing to return to Iraq for a second rotation there, Harper said. But even if her kids never deploy again, she'll still be running Operation Shoebox.

"For me, it's like my mission," Harper said. "People just don't understand that one of the things that helps (soldiers) get through their day is knowing that Americans back here are supporting them.

"The soldiers still need support. It doesn't matter that the actual war phase is considered done. They're still over there fighting for our freedom here. This is the least we can do," she added. "It's not over. As long as our sons and daughters are over there, it's not going to be over until the last one comes home."

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