Combat troops often go for long periods of time without the simple comforts those of us back home often take for granted. Things like fresh socks or even a lollipop rate high on the list of luxuries for those serving abroad.
Not only that, opportunities to buy personal care items like toothpaste, shampoo or shaving cream are rare.
As a result, for those serving in Afghanistan, Iraq and other combat zones, care packages from home are a highlight of mail call.
With memories of such joys from their own service days, and a desire to do more than fly a "support the troops" flag in their yards following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Ray Zastrow and LeRoy Eades started a local effort to package common items and send them to soldiers deployed overseas.
"It was called Operation Shoebox back then," Eades said. "And it got bigger and bigger and the bigger the boxes, so we went to the priority mail and kept it going on."
Zastrow passed away in September 2017 but the support group is still going strong.
"Now it's called the Rhinelander Military Support Group," said Zastrow's widow, Cheryl, who is involved in the organization along with Eades' wife, Shirley.
"We applied for a 501 (c) (3) and there were too many people out there that had 'military support group,'" Eades said. "So we had to separate ourselves."
The idea behind the campaign came from Zastrow, who served in the Army during the Korean War.
"Her (Cheryl's) husband was a retired military man," Eades said. "And it just came to him one day; we were over there and we never had anything, snacks, food like that. He thought it was a good idea, and I'm going to ship these boxes over."
Without even a name for the operation, the group began learning about the requirements the Department of Defense places on such packages.
"Back then, all we could ship was a shoebox," Eades said. "And then they had to be wrapped in brown paper and tied with store string before we could ship it."
When the group first formed, they worked out of the Zastrow garage.
"We had, I don't know how many volunteers at one time that came in and did this," Eades said. "Then we got bigger and we moved into the V.F.W. and then the Veterans' Center. We've been doing it 18 years now."
Eades has moved the operation from the Veterans' Center into his own garage because it is easier for him to come out and put in a couple hours over the course of a day.
Eades said the packages used to be addressed "to any soldier" or "to any Marine," but the Department of Defense got more particular about what could be sent and how.
"The government got stricter on giving out names, now we only get one name at a time," he said.
"And then they (that service member) distributes to others," Zastrow said.
"This one is going to a Lucas I met, he's over there right now," Eades said, gesturing toward a shipment. "He'll take the boxes he gets and he will distribute it to the troops."
Eades also sends packages to a chaplain he knows who forwards them on to four units.
"They're making it a little harder for us to get it to the troops," Cheryl said, referring to the regulations.
"They change the paperwork all the time," Eades said, holding up a checklist. "They never made us do this before, and now we got to put a list, and we got to put the price. And then there's another slip that goes in here (plastic pouch on top of each box) that shows where it's going, what its value is and what's in there. So that is why they came up with this checklist."
And there are the restrictions on what can be sent in the packages.
"I can't ship powdered socks, they have to be white socks," Eades said. "Can't ship out girly books, you can't ship any religious stuff."
According to Eades, each box is filled with approximately 58 items, many of which are donated.
Other items are purchased at dollar stores, they added.
The group assembles two types of boxes, one for male troops and one for female troops.
Eades said each package is worth about $50 and cost $18 to ship.
"Right now, we're going to ship out 55," Eades said.
"Around Christmastime, a lot goes out,' Zastrow said. "And it depends on the donations we get, how much we can raise and how much we can send."
According to Eades, it takes about 30 days for the packages to wind their way throw the postal system and then into the military mail which travels by ship.
People or businesses interested in donating items for the packages should contact Eades in advance at 715-362-2746 to see what is on the checklist.
Monetary donations to help defray the cost of shipping are also accepted.
Peoples State Bank also holds a fundraiser every year for the Rhinelander Military Support Group in September.
Last year, this effort gathered over 7,800 pieces to go into the kits, the last of which were in the latest shipment.
Jamie Taylor may be reached via email at jamie@rivernews online.com.
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