Imagine being injured and alone in a foreign land. Imagine fighting a war, where necessities are minimal, let alone comforts, and the days dawn scorching hot or bitter cold. And then imagine one day getting a box filled with little luxuries like candy bars and toiletries; maybe a friendly letter or a handmade quilt.
Ray Zastrow and a team of dedicated volunteers had a hard time imagining the loneliness and sacrifice soldiers make and decided to do something about it. Since 2002 Rhinelander’s Military Support Group has sent out more than 4,000 care packages to American troops and their efforts have not gone unnoticed.
Ray is proud of the red binder where he keeps all the thank you letters soldiers have written over the years to express gratitude for the care packages that come their way, whether they are actively engaged in war or are sick or injured and receiving treatment at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany. This is where many soldiers go to recover before being shipped back to America.
“Thank you for reminding us over here that there are people, total strangers even, who are thinking of us and showing support for us. We always welcome beef jerky, oatmeal packets, fruit snacks, peanut butter and pretty much anything we can snack on. There are 40,000 personnel stationed here in Kandahar and only two small stores where soldiers can get supplies. So, needless to say, unless you time it just right when the supplies land they are often sold out of anything a soldier may need from razors to toiletries, to snacks. So we do appreciate everything that you send and you have my guarantee that it will be put to good use by the soldiers of the 563rd Aviation Support Battalion,” writes Captain Jonathan J. Carver.
That’s just one letter that keeps Ray and the volunteers going. “In many ways, I think Americans have forgotten we are fighting a war,” said Ray. “A few minutes a night on the news is usually all we see but there are so many American soldiers fighting all over the world.”
One letter in particular is a stark reminder of the number of Americans fighting overseas. It comes from a chaplain who operates the Chaplain’s Clothes Closet (CCC) at Landstuhl. When wounded soldiers come in from battle, they have only their war clothes and many times those are destroyed. The CCC provides clothing for these warriors to wear while they recover. “The Chaplain’s Closet serves more than 600 warriors each month,” writes J. Luke Pittman, a chaplain, colonel and chief of the Clinical Pastoral Division at Landstuhl. “Since the CCC is a non-funded humanitarian entity within the Department of Defense, we rely on the generous donations of fellow Americans and others. One hundred percent of all donations directly support our wounded and ill service members.”
Ray finds this letter particularly disturbing. “How many people realize we have 600 men and women a month go through this facility?” he asked. “That’s a lot of troops that are injured or sick.”
The idea of a military support group actually started in 1991 during the Desert Storm conflict. Ray and some other volunteers decided they wanted to make sure that every soldier who returned from war was acknowledged and that the families left behind got support. “We didn’t want a Viet Nam scenario to happen to these soldiers,” said Ray. “We wanted to make sure they knew we appreciated their efforts in war. We also helped their families as much as we could. Sometimes that meant fixing a window or shoveling a sidewalk.”
By 2002, Ray and the volunteers decided to take their efforts one step further and started sending care packages to soldiers when war broke out in the Middle East. There was also another reason why Ray was so dedicated to this particular mission: his son Ben was deployed. “Then I found out first- hand how hard it was for our soldiers to get the little necessities of life,” said Ray. “The group decided to ask for donations and start sending care packages to American soldiers fighting overseas.”
In each box there is at least 28 items. Candy bars, snacks, toiletry items, toothpaste, foot powder, games, notepads and even puzzles are included. One item soldiers can’t get enough of is wet wipes. “A lot of these soldiers are in areas where they can’t take a shower,” said Ray. “The wet wipes are their only way to keep clean.”
One volunteer, Mike Sheridan, makes handmade quilts for soldiers recovering in hospitals overseas. “Please accept my gratitude for the special quilt you made for me. It was a most pleasant surprise during a time of much pain and suffering during our stay at the Fisher House in Landstuhl,” writes one family member of a wounded soldier.
“Fisher House is like a Ronald McDonald house where families can stay while their loved one recovers,” said Ray. “We also support the families of the troops whenever we can.”
Ray gets names of soldiers and places he can send the care packages to from the website Anysoldier.com. The volunteers meet the last Saturday of every month at the old American Legion hall (now called the Vet’s Center) at 1004 Coon St. in Rhinelander. Packing starts at 9 a.m. and is finished by 10:30 a.m. Donations and volunteers are always welcome.
“I never thought these care packages would have the impact they do on our troops,” said Ray. “If we can make even one soldier’s life a little happier and easier, then in my opinion, it’s all worth the effort.”
For more information about the Military Support Group call Ray at 715-369-8912.