America Supports You: Group Brightens Season in Baghdad
By Jim Garamone and Kathleen T. Rhem
American Forces Press Service
BAGHDAD, Dec. 12, 2005 The package of high-end tea arrived in this dusty, hot city earlier this month with postcards and greetings from people all over the United States.
When Army Sgt. 1st Class Elaine Prosa opened the box, the smell of tea and spices infused the room. The postcards and tea came from an organization called "Soldiers' Angels." The motto of the group is "May No Soldier Go Unloved."
Over the past two years, countless servicemembers throughout Iraq and Afghanistan and in military hospitals in the United States and Germany have opened such packages from their own "angels," explained Sara Ehrlich, a volunteer angel in New Jersey. Ehrlich sent the package Prosa received and hundreds more like it -- sometimes up to 15 packages a week, she said. "And when I can't send packages, I can always write letters," she added.
Soldiers' Angels is a nonprofit volunteer group founded by Patti Patton-Bader, whose son, Army Sgt. Brandon Varn, recently returned from Iraq. The group has provided angel packages to deployed servicemembers and to military hospitals and has also helped the families of many deployed servicemembers.
Prosa, an intelligence specialist, explained that she came across a sign-up sheet from the group as she processed for deployment through Fort Bliss, Texas. "When I got here, I sent them the address and the fact that I have 22 people with me."
She received a short note from Ehrlich that "had this cute little stress-reliever rock with an angel on it," Prosa said. Since then, the sergeant and her co-workers have had Ehrlich as their angel in the states. Ehrlich sends Angel packages to Prosa, who then distributes the contents to her fellow servicemembers. Ehrlich said she is impressed that Prosa is dealing with her own stress on deployment, yet still always thinks of other troops, such as those in the motor pool and on guard duty at the embassy.
Ehrlich said she hates to admit it, but she only became involved in troop-support issues when her son joined the Army. "They were off my radar before that," she told American Forces Press Service.
She said she's particularly impressed with people who support military causes even when they have no personal ties to servicemembers. "Many members (of Soldiers' Angels) do not have a direct military tie," she said. "Yet they spend hours and hours and dollars and dollars on packages."
One of Erlich's Angel packages to Prosa contained Christmas decorations. "We will break those out in a bit," Prosa said. "We need to get through the (Dec. 15) elections first."
The group also sends postcards; one Prosa received featured a painting of a 48-star American flag by American impressionist Jasper Johns. On the other side are written greetings, often with an address. Many soldiers write back thanking the folks for their support. "It means a lot," Prosa said. "It shows us we're not forgotten."
It means just as much for the volunteer angels to get the feedback, Ehrlich said. "The angels get so excited when they get a letter back," she said. "They congratulate each other."
She explained that the letter-writing campaign grew out of the care-package project. Many people can't afford or are otherwise unable to send care packages to troops, but they can write letters. Volunteer angels have sent up to 10,000 letters in one month. Letter writers sign up for a certain amount of names per week to start correspondence with. They're only committed to that first letter, unless the servicemember writes back. In that case the group expects the volunteer to maintain some correspondence.
Ehrlich said this system works because volunteers can settle on their own level of involvement. "People can participate at the level that's good for them," she said.
Ideas for supporting servicemembers continue to broaden for the Soldiers' Angels group. Recently the group has begun a program to solicit volunteers to knit or make fleece mittens for wounded servicemembers to wear while being transported from Landstuhl Regional Medical Center, in Germany, to the United States. Other volunteers put together backpacks with basic hygiene supplies and clothing items for troops who show up at the hospital with nothing.
"It's a challenge," Ehrlich said, "because everybody wants to address every need, and there's a lot of needs."
Ehrlich's son, Army Sgt. Dan Ehrlich, is assigned to the 313th Military Intelligence Battalion, at Fort Bragg, N.C. She said she got through his recent six-month stint in Iraq by counting her blessings.
"As hard as it was to know that he was over there, he was so much better off than a lot of the soldiers and Marines that I support," Ehrlich said. "He wasn't 'outside the wire.' I came away from that feeling that much more determined to make sure that the guys in worse situations know that we care."
She related an amusing anecdote from when Dan was deployed. Ehrlich was "chatting" with him online one day when she mentioned she received an engraved glass plaque as a show of appreciation from the 1st Corps Support Command. Dan retorted: "You're going to have more commendations from this tour than I am."
Ehrlich said she wants all Americans to understand there are many ways they can help support the troops. Some members of her community drop off magazines and books after they've been read. Others pack boxes or contribute snack items.
"There's a way for everyone to support our deployed men and women. There's no end to the ways," she said. "If everybody found just one way that worked for them to provide support, it would be a wonderful thing. They're over there and they're in harm's way, and I think most of all they just want to be remembered.
"We need to let them know they'll never be forgotten," Ehrlich said. "That's the most important thing we can send."
(AFPS writer Jim Garamone reported from Baghdad; colleague Kathleen T. Rhem reported from Washington.)