With words and cookies, Candy Bishop of Lombard brings the troops out of the desert.
The escape her letters and care packages provide is figurative and fleeting, but significant all the same to military members serving in the desolate landscapes of Afghanistan, she says.
That's why Bishop, 67, volunteers with the nonprofit Soldiers' Angels, sending thousands of letters and hundreds of batches of homemade cookies to troops in action.
"They love letters because it takes them out of the desert for just a minute," Bishop said. "They love anything that lets them forget where they are."
Over the past four years, Bishop's words and treats have provided reprieve for more than 4,000 troops serving in Afghanistan, Iraq, Kuwait and Qatar. She stopped counting once she hit 4,000, but she easily can recall a special group with whom she has become quite close.
There's the Air Force sergeant who felt such a strong need to thank Bishop for her kind words that he sent her an American flag flown July 4, 2009, over Forward Operating Base Gardez in Afghanistan.
There's the soldier now stationed in Colorado, one of the first to whom Bishop wrote, who still updates her on his whereabouts and accomplishments.
There's the soldier Bishop has met in person, one who passed through town to visit friends at Wheaton College.
And then there's the Army sergeant who requested cookies. Homemade peanut butter cookies, please.
Bishop said she used to send Oreos with her letters to troops at remote bases where military convenience stores often run out of everything but the bare necessities. But the peanut butter cookie request got her to fire up her oven and start baking homemade treats -- most often chocolate chip, double chocolate or peanut butter cookies.
"These will actually be going to Afghanistan," Bishop says on a recent Friday morning, pointing to a batch of cookies still fresh on a baking sheet. "I keep them pretty moist because it could be three weeks until they get there."
Before Bishop started sending letters and desserts to servicemen and women stationed in the desert, she read a newspaper article about the struggles of veterans who have returned from recent wars. Her father served in the Navy during World War II, but she does not have any other close family or friends in the military.
"When you read their story, then you start to imagine their story, and then I started to think about the guys who are still there," she said. "I became pretty absorbed by the stories and the realities of the lives these people are living."
She researched organizations assisting military members online and found Soldiers' Angels. She was drawn to the charity by the variety of projects it supports, including a blanket-making squad, an adopt-a-soldier project and a letter-writing team.
Now retired from a marketing position at Waste Management, Bishop said she chose the letter-writing team to help military members using the power of words.
"Too many of them just never hear from their own families," Bishop said.
That may be because they come from a small family or because relatives can't afford to send much overseas, said Leslie Scott, letter-writing team leader with Soldiers' Angels. Getting mail can lift the spirits of those serving abroad, so when family, comrades or commanders sign up a service member to receive support, letter-writers get their pens and keyboards going right away.
For volunteers, "it's all about how much time you have and how much you want to put into it," Scott said.
Bishop, she said, is known among the organization's almost 4,000 letter-writers as someone who always is willing to do more.
"Especially around this time of year, Candy is always one who is requesting extras for Christmas cards," Scott said. "If someone needs extra mail, her name is always on the list."
Bishop begins each new correspondence with a thank-you message. Expressing gratitude is important and the troops always appreciate the sentiment, she said. In later messages, she'll tailor her stories to individual interests, telling those who like to travel about her recent adventures, including bungee jumping in Hilton Head, S.C., or sending newspaper sports sections to those interested in athletics.
Bishop's husband of 38 years, Rob, hasn't joined in the letter-writing effort, but he said he supports his wife's endeavors and doesn't object when paying $7 or $8 to send multiple packages of cookies to the Middle East for the holidays gets a bit pricey.
Soldiers' Angels leaders tell volunteers not to expect anything in reply to their letters, as sometimes the troops are unable to send mail from their locations. But Bishop has received a jewelry box, a decorative ashtray, and piles of postcards and letters from some of the thousands she has contacted. Stamped "free mail," responses always brighten her day.
"When we do get mail back, it's really exciting," Scott said. "I think it's as exciting for us as it is for them."
While stacks of letters and postcards sent to the Bishops' Lombard apartment in the Beacon Hill senior living community show the troops are thankful for her actions, she says the nation's military members are the ones who really deserve thanks.
"You can get real close to some of these folks," Bishop said. "They're the real people to be thankful for."