Department Spotlight: Minnesota remembers deployed troops over the holidays

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Editor’s note: This is a weekly series of Department Spotlight stories featuring unique programs and initiatives of departments throughout The American Legion. Department adjutants are invited to recommend subjects for their departments by emailing magazine@legion.org.

Minnesota Army National Guard Sgt. 1st Class Dan Bronk remembers what it was like to be at a forward operating base in Afghanistan at Christmas. When the Chinook helicopters appeared on Dec. 24, 2011, he hoped that something good from home was onboard, something he could use, enjoy or bring a little color to an otherwise drab, dirty and dangerous place.

“It’s not like you could just drive down the road to the store to get hand wipes,” says Bronk, who serves today as 1st vice commander of American Legion Post 39 in St. Paul. “We were at a remote FOB on the top of a mountain.”

That Christmas, he got more than hand wipes. Bronk and his fellow Minnesota troops received unexpected U.S. Postal Service boxes stuffed with gifts – from toiletries to socks to treats and games they could enjoy during the holidays and share with others. The boxes came from their Minnesota American Legion Family and the U.S. Postal Service, which have joined forces in a project called Shop, Ship and Share for the last nine years.

Lisa Sunderland, a U.S. Postal Service district staffing specialist, said that in its first year the program produced 73 boxes for Minnesota troops deployed far from home. This year, nearly 1,200 boxes were assembled and sent from Maplewood Mall near St. Paul to U.S. duty stations all over the world. Dozens of volunteers helped with the record-breaking 2016 effort Dec. 2-3, including American Legion Family members from across the region, National Guardsmen, students from nearly 40 schools, Boy Scout units, Junior ROTC cadets, an American Heritage Girls troop, and many others. More than $20,000 in donations were collected to purchase gifts and pay for shipping.

Volunteers at the packing tables ranged from 14-year-old Minnesota Junior American Legion Auxiliary member Kiana Coleman-Woods of Lino Lakes Unit 566 to 94-year-old Virginia Whaley, president of Auxiliary Unit 451 in St. Paul, and World War II B-24 tail gunner Bob Holmstrom, a member of American Legion Post 39 in St. Paul. Like many of the Legionnaires who volunteered for Shop, Ship and Share this year at the mall, Holmstrom – who helped fly supplies to American soldiers fighting in the Battle of the Bulge around Christmas 1944 – remembers what it was like to be a young soldier far from home during the holidays. “Been there and done that,” he said.

“Been there, done that, too – Desert Storm,” added volunteer Bob Leslie, American Legion Riders Chapter president for Arcade-Phalen Post 577. “When they open that box, it’s a piece of home. Hopefully, they will get the message that we have not forgotten about them.”

The idea sprang from a U.S. Postal Service initiative to open a retail outlet in the Maplewood Mall to ease shipping for holiday shoppers. Sunderland said her co-worker, Steve Campos, a National Guardsman at the time and a member of American Legion Post 599 in St. Paul, suggested adding a troop-support element to the satellite post office in the mall. Because the U.S. Postal Service has restrictions about collecting donated items or raising funds, Campos suggested The American Legion’s 4th District of Minnesota step in to assist. Thus was born Shop, Ship and Share as a joint effort between The American Legion and the U.S. Postal Service.

With 45 days to go before the first event in 2008, Teresa Ash, 4th District commander at the time, went to American Legion Family members with a challenge she was not sure could be met. “I said I’d like to raise $5,000 for this,” said Ash, the Legion’s Shop, Ship and Share committee chairperson today. “Not only did that happen – they doubled it. This is what The American Legion is all about. People want to be a part of this.”

The American Legion’s “Fighting 5th District” later locked arms in the effort, and donations from throughout the state began to pour in, as well as the names of deployed personnel to receive the packages overseas.

“We do pull in the whole department,” said Robin Picray, 4th District finance officer. “Those of us who have been in the service know what it’s like to be away from home during the holidays.”

“Their hearts are all in it – to do anything they can for those who are deployed,” Sunderland said of the Legion Family volunteers. “It’s outstanding how much this has grown.”

One volunteer, Mickey Ostrum of Post 39 in St. Paul, said he thinks Shop, Ship and Share can grow beyond Minnesota’s borders. “Hopefully, it will spread to other areas around the country. If we can do it here, there is no reason other departments in The American Legion can’t do it. There are plenty of troops overseas.”

Lisa Ghylin of Post 599 in St. Paul spent two Christmas holidays deployed in Afghanistan. After discharge, she learned about Shop, Ship and Share through her student veterans association at Metropolitan State University, whose members volunteered to help with the effort one year. “I’ve been interested in (Shop, Ship and Share) since before I became a Legion member,” said Ghylin, an Army veteran who promoted the event in her Legion cap Dec. 2 in a live in-studio Twin Cities morning TV news program. “It did spur my membership in The American Legion.”

As adults filled out packing slips and boxed items for distribution, children wrote notes, drew and colored Christmas greetings for the deployed personnel. “We came here so we could help veterans,” said 15-year-old Emily Schlegel, whose American Heritage Girls troop is sponsored by Maple Grove American Legion Post 172. “We’re glad these pictures are going to the men and women who are serving in Iraq and Afghanistan.”

“I think most of them know how important our troops are, but as a kid, you don’t always get to show your support as much – to have a voice to thank the troops,” said Carla Wolfe-Bartusek, district volunteer chairman for the Northern Star Council of Boy Scouts, who helped oversee boys of all ages packing boxes for the troops, including an ample supply of Scout popcorn.

“They fought for our freedom, so I want to give back,” said Coleman-Woods. “I want them to know that somebody is looking out for them.”

“It’s good for young people,” said Holmstrom, the World War II veteran volunteer. “I like seeing them do it … they are very positive about it.”

Whaley, who has 54 years of American Legion Auxiliary membership, said volunteer activities like Shop, Ship and Share provide a kind of camaraderie that should not be lost on new generations. “This is family to me, knowing that people in The American Legion and Auxiliary are here for me – every person I have met from the Auxiliary and the Legion – even from other states – has the same attitude and the same mission, to serve veterans,” she said, taking a break from signing cards bound for the troops.

Thinking of you, from miles away – Ginny.

She said Shop, Ship and Share reminds her of a time when families and friends commonly worked together on community service projects. “Years ago, you didn’t have all the soccer and football teams,” she said. “Where was your activity going to be? With your family. Now, parents are tied up attending all these things their kids are involved with. But after you do something like this, it makes you feel good right here, in your heart.”

Holmstrom, a 35-year member of The American Legion, fully agrees. “This is just great,” he said. “It gives people at home a sense that they are supporting our troops. I think we should do more for them. It makes you feel good.”

Ghylin said she volunteers at Shop, Ship and Share because the men and women deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan are always on her mind. “I think about them every day, knowing what I did and what I went through. It sucks to be away so long and so far away from the comforts of home at the holidays.”

Ash, whose son was deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan and received boxes from the American Legion-USPS effort, said the best part of Shop, Ship and Share is feedback from the front. “We get pictures, and to see their faces, it’s just awesome,” she said. “I can’t tell you how rewarding it is. And every single person here (among the volunteers) plays an equally important role. This event brings people together.”

Special guest volunteers and visitors at the mall Dec. 2-3 included two Minnesota Vikings cheerleaders, “Goldy” the Gopher (the University of Minnesota mascot) and the T.C. Bear (the Minnesota Twins mascot).

U.S. Army National Guard Col. (ret.) Eric Ahlness was the featured speaker at a program near the end of this year’s event. He was at the same FOB on the mountaintop as Sgt. 1st Class Bronk in 2011. “Having care packages from home meant the world to me,” he told a crowd that included the local mayor, a county commissioner, the city police commander and several American Legion and U.S. Postal Service officials. “That made our day… gave us a little brightness that we wouldn’t otherwise have. It brings brightness. It brings cheer.”

Minnesota American Legion Department Commander Denise Milton, who spent 30 years in the U.S. Army, including overseas assignments as a nurse, knows what it means to get something special during the holidays when you’re stationed far away. “I can’t tell you how important it is to get mail or a package,” she told the crowd. “Often, that’s the only life line you have from home.”

“This is our biggest project of the year, and it’s another record year,” 4th District Commander Randy Bastyr told the crowd.

“It’s nice to know that patriotism is still alive, and every year, it keeps growing and growing,” said Sgt. 1st Class Bronk, taking a short break before returning to the assembly line to prepare something good from home for an unknown Minnesota soldier who just might be at a drab, dirty and dangerous mountaintop FOB somewhere this Christmas Eve, wondering what’s in the Chinooks.