Handled with care

Group sends more than packages to U.S. military troops

by Jessica Langdon

PRAIRIE VILLAGE — As fireworks burst into Kansas skies celebrating our freedom this Independence Day, the faces of some of the men and women deployed to defend that freedom just might be lighting up as well.

Many of those smiles will be thanks to the tireless efforts of parishioners at St. Ann Parish in Prairie Village.

In the past seven years, the Troop Support Team, a committee of the parish’s Women’s Club, has sent more than 1,500 care boxes to troops deployed overseas.

The boxes, crammed with every- thing from protein snacks and books to deodorant and the highly prized Red Bull, are shared among at least three or four people.

“They all say it’s just like a kid at Christmastime — doesn’t matter what time of year it is—when they get a package,” said Suzanne Mogren, who heads up the St. Ann team.

Once, the person who handed a young soldier his very first package had to turn around to wipe away a tear on seeing his excitement.

Some servicemen and women don’t even get packages from family.

And without stores nearby where they can easily pick up basic commodities, they find gifts like these priceless. But there’s more to the mission of mercy than that.

“I don’t think it’s the things we send that are so important,” said Kathy Scheve, a longtime member of the group. “I think it’s the fact that people are thinking about them.”

Although President Barack Obama recently announced plans to significantly reduce the number of troops in Afghanistan in the months ahead, Mogren doesn’t see an end in sight to the need there — or in other areas.

In June, the U.S. Department of Defense announced the deployment of an aircraft carrier, guided-missile cruiser and guided-missile destroyer to the Persian Gulf, as Sunni militants seized cities in Iraq.

“Troops have been deployed to Central Africa to help forces that are fighting the Lord’s Resistance Army group. There are troops in Poland,” said Mogren. “Sad to say, we have always had troops in harm’s way — we don’t always hear about them — and we always will. So we must support our troops.”

And so, with that mission in mind, once a month, the team of St. Ann parishioners gathers for a “packing party.”

One Tuesday morning this past May, the group was hard at work in Mogren’s home in Prairie Village, the assembly line comfortable and friendly, but the packing down to a science.

The “team” caught up on life and news as they secured anything that could possibly leak en route to Afghanistan in multiple plastic storage bags.

Some tucked and taped bubble wrap around cans of Red Bull.

And some penned letters to the people who will open the packages.

The team has been sending packages to troops for several years now.

But Mogren’s passion for helping the troops was sparked long before that.

Support from the heart

Mogren grew up in a Marine Corps family.

When the Gulf War drew troops from the United States overseas in the early 1990s, her dad, who had served in World War II, Korea, Vietnam and other places, recognized what the people serving were experiencing — and the things they might be doing without.

“While sitting and talking with my dad, it was apparent that, even at age 80, he felt he should be in that battle with them. . . .

Helping them,” said Mogren. “Dad asked if I would take care of the troops. I wanted to do that. I wanted to make their tour of duty a bit easier.”

Working with her cousin’s husband, a career Army officer himself, Mogren sent packages and later helped start a lending library.

Then her sister told her about a website: www.anysoldier.com.

It allowed her to choose a branch of the military, make contact with a person, and pinpoint some of the needs and wants of the people who would be receiving the boxes.

The expanding ministry fell under the umbrella of the St. Ann Women’s Club, and it only grew more important in the years that followed.

With love from home

The letter writing is an important component of the team’s work. At the May meeting, Barb Aziere and Janice Orrick were catching the servicemen and women up with the hometown news.

“We tell them what’s going on here in Prairie Village, about what the Royals are doing and what the Chiefs are doing, and the weather,” said parishioner Pat Kolarik. “We try to relate them to things at home.”

Many people don’t fully understand all that the troops go through in their deployments, she said, and working with this group makes people feel they’re doing something tangible to support them.

“I think the letters you get back are the most moving thing — the letters that come back that say how much this means to people,” said Marlene Rowe.

The moral support alone means a lot, the servicemen and women write.

“I had classmates who came back from Vietnam, and they were not very appreciated,” recalled Scheve. “I did not want that to ever happen again.”

She feared she would have to give up the packing parties when she began caring for her granddaughter, Kendra Scheve, who is now 4. But she soon learned the operation was pretty flexible — and Mogren was more than hap- py to add to the ranks.

To her, these packing parties are a “family affair.”

“Bring her,” Mogren said. So, baby Kendra became the youngest member of this group. Kids and grandkids are welcome to help or just play.

Great support

Kendra’s specialty is wrapping and taping.

When one package is finished, she’s ready for the next.

And she knows exactly what helping her grandma at these gatherings has made her.

“I’m a ‘trooper,’” said Kendra, knowing exactly who her hard work is helping.

The group, in fact, is full of troupers — each ready to take on the next task as it presents itself.

Joan Perkins is the group’s unofficial “discount shopper.”

“Joan manages to find some of the best sales,” said Mogren, and her coupons reduce the sale prices even further.

And Martha Phillips will drop everything to run errands — especially when they discover partway through the packing they’ve run short of something.

But they all point to Mogren as the driving force behind this mission, a leader who has to put in 40-plus hours some weeks getting everything ready, said Scheve.

But the more they hear back from the people they’re supporting, the more Mogren wants to do for them.

Fortunately, the team has plenty of support to draw on. St. Ann students sacrifice some of their Halloween candy to tuck into the Christmas boxes.

“They put a good share of our troops in Afghanistan on a sugar high,” said Mogren.

And businesses are happy to see overstock items that are still good go to people who can use them. Health care and dental offices have also made donations.

Finally, fifth-graders at St. Ann con- tribute letters, snacks and other items to the boxes — and one group wrote back to the students to thank them and tell them a little about their own lives.

More needs to meet

Even with so many people pitching in, Mogren knows this group can’t fill all the needs alone. She’d love to see other parishes form their own teams, and offers to help them get started.

“Suzanne has made this such a personal program for the servicemen over there,” said Scheve. “Everything has been very one-to-one, very personal.”

So personal, in fact, that they all felt a shattering loss when they learned that Lt. Florence B. Choe with the U.S. Navy was killed while serving in Af- ghanistan in 2009.

The group had been working with the 35-year-old wife and mother in a program called United Through Reading, in which service members record stories to be played by their loved ones back home.

The St. Ann group sent books to her for the program. After her death, it sponsored a flag to be flown in her honor.

The personal connection only strengthened the members’ resolve to support the men and women serving overseas.

And their work does not go unappreciated.

A Marine from the local recruiting office stopped by to thank the team and meet members, telling them how much their packages meant to the troops.

And a Marine sergeant, who was one of Mogren’s early contacts, brought his family for a visit during a trip through the area.

‘They are from family’

Bob Mogren, Suzanne’s husband, and others regularly pitch in by delivering the boxes to the post office.

Something as simple as helping with postage makes a big difference to the group. When they started, postage to send a flat rate box to a military destination cost $8.95, said Mogren.

Today, it costs $15.45.

But it’s worth every penny, knowing the difference they’re making in real lives.

To Janice Orrick, it’s patriotic to be part of this.

“I just think that that’s the least we can do for what they’re doing,” said Orrick.

And somewhere in the world, troops from the United States are always going to be hard at work, Mogren believes.

“There will always be a need,” she said.

If a letter a from a sergeant major with the Marines to the post office that serves the St. Ann group is any indication, the group’s message of support is hitting home.

“Being deployed on the front lines in combat for 7 months at a time is not easy…to say the least,”he wrote in a letter that Mogren incorporated into a book detailing the troop-support experience.

“However, when I deliver the mail to my Marines and Sailors . . . their eyes light up on their dirty, dingy faces . . . smiles start and grow from ear to ear . . . as I hand each of them a package,” the Marine continued. “The packages don’t have to be from their family . . . it’s just that those packages are from home — from Americans.

“Therefore . . . they are from family.”

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Jessica Langdon

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