America Supports You: Deployed Troops, Families Get Homefront Hugs
By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Nov. 23, 2004 There's nothing like a little piece of home to help a deployed servicemember through a long deployment. Operation Homefront Hugs offers just that: periodic care packages and cards from Americans who've "adopted" a servicemember deployed far from home.
Alessandra Kellerman of Gulf Breeze, Fla., launched the program last spring at the urging of commanders in Southwest Asia. She was already operating a Web site listing resources for deployed troops and their families.
But what was missing, the commanders told her, was the much-needed morale boost that comes from receiving a personally addressed package and a note of appreciation and support.
Operation Homefront Hugs has taken on a life of its own, with about 420 volunteers signing up to send care packages at least twice and month and letters or cards at least three times a month. Together, they've adopted 500 to 700 servicemembers.
"It's not so much about how much they send. It can be a magazine and some candy," Kellerman said. "What's important is that they're making a commitment and making it continuous."
Kellerman gives volunteers advice about what to send their adopted servicemember: practical items like baby wipes and lip balm, stress reducers like disposable cameras and Frisbees, and treats ranging from granola bars to hard candy. She also sets out strict guidelines about prohibited items: chocolate, pornographic materials, pork products and liquor, among them.
In addition, she monitors who signs up for the program, ensuring that they're willing to participate for at least three months and that they don't share information about their deployed servicemember.
"When you see the letters of people who want to help, it's just amazing," she said. "People really want to put their words into action and help."
Based on feedback from the field, the program is a big hit. "The soldiers are thrilled from the support you and yours are providing," wrote Army Capt. Timothy Vance, commander of Battery A, 1st Battalion, 201st Field Artillery, deployed to Iraq. "I was awestruck with the packages you sent (and) don't know how I could ever repay you for the warmth and generosity you have displayed."
While winning the support of deployed troops, the program has branched out to "adopt" family members too. So far that part of the program is small, with only about 10 families participating, but Kellerman said she hopes to see it grow.
Herself a former military child, then wife, Kellerman said she understands firsthand the stresses families of deployed troops go through. "And with deployments getting longer, some families don't mind getting some morale support and a thank you," she said.
A soldier in Iraq wrote Kellerman, thanking her for the gifts Operation Homefront Hugs sent his daughter, who had been diagnosed with brain tumors, on her birthday. The gift cards named "Daddy and his friends" as the gift-givers.
Another soldier recently returned from Iraq wrote thanking Kellerman for the support the operation provided both him and his family while he was deployed. "It still amazes me that complete strangers would take the time and effort to send care packages and communicate with those of us serving our country, and also take the time to care for our families back at home," he wrote.
Kellerman stressed that the program isn't limited to the holiday season or to troops deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan and their families. "This is for our deployed troops everywhere," she said.
She said the program offers a great way for people to reach out to those serving their country and the families who stand behind them. "And you get so much out of this program yourself," she said. "The gratification is knowing that you're helping keep their spirits up while they complete their mission."