Editor's note: Army Lt. Matt Spartz, a lifelong Lombard resident, was deployed to Afghanistan in May with the 101st Airborne Division. A 2008 journalism graduate of University of Illinois, he is submitting occasional reports for the Daily Herald.
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From Afghanistan, I've probably talked to my grandmother more than any other year of my life. She sends me handwritten letters (in the most perfect flowery cursive) every few weeks, not to mention she is one of the most tech-savvy seniors with a Facebook profile.
Longtime and long-lost family friends have sent me stuffed flat-rate boxes. Strangers have mailed me socks, blankets and canned goods. My last operations center was lined with letters from someone else's kids our favorite bluntly ending as only a kid could with: "Please don't die."
My point is, the love and support from our American families keep our military strong in this, the longest war in our history. Even if Facebook didn't exist, Americans have been supporting their warriors since the Pony Express.
In the Civil War, towns harboring troops would provide fresh food, coffee and medical services. Figures like Norman Rockwell and Rosie the Riveter urged Americans to "Save all we can! Given them all they need!"
A few weeks back, my head was not in the game. Everyone has those "rainy days" when getting out of bed is the hardest thing to do, when feeling sorry for yourself is easier than being thankful for everything you have. Due to my expected move to a new outpost, I halted any requests for mail until I was settled. It had been almost two months since my last care package.
Then I got six boxes in one day. My girlfriend, Brittany, sent me a box that included pictures of her cooking the homemade jam she packed, and a new calendar, upon which she wrote of landmark or funny memories from our relationship. My family sent me Halloween candy and cards, including one "from" my beloved Dodge truck.
I could have walked out the gate and won the war on that day.
The generosity of American families is the thing of legend. When our dusty 20-ton up-armored trucks roll into an outpost with a trailer full of boxes there is a collective sigh of excitement and warmth from every unit. We are not forgotten! The world has kept spinning!
Some back home cry out about the unbelievable cost of this war, but that hasn't deterred thousands of Americans from spending their pocket money on Ramen noodles and beef jerky to fuel our brothers, sisters, friends, fathers, mothers and strangers walking around this foreign country with an American flag on their shoulders.
So here I'll offer some advice for anyone looking to send their soldier a care package this holiday season:
First, anything handwritten is not lost in the digital age. Whether you write a letter, or Hallmark writes most of it and you add your "P.S.," e-mail is no substitute for homemade wall decorations.
Next, current magazines are almost as good as the Internet. Actually, they're better because there is no 30-minute limit on reading a magazine. On the same note, there are plenty of dime store fiction novels on an outpost, but not many good nonfiction books.
Realize there is no shortage of food on an American outpost. But the Army has yet to provide Oreos, or my particularly favorite type of hot sauce. We also could open a chain of Hiltons with the amount of travel toiletries that have been sent to the war zone. Unless your soldier requests a specific type of razor/soap/toothpaste, he probably has enough.
Finally, know your audience! Send whatever gives a piece of home. My mom sends me newspapers; my uncle puts Sunday football games on DVDs.
For every person who sends a "Dear soldier" package, thank you. Know that there is indeed one specific person who will most likely open that box, and most likely that soldier will be so grateful for it that he'll also be too embarrassed to share that gratitude.
As I tried to allude to, there's really no reason I should have felt sorry for myself. Soldiers gladly will continue to stand guard in a distant land as long as our families keep walking to the mailbox.