by Diana Bulls
Less than 30 minutes drive from Reedley, in the little mountain community of Squaw Valley, sits Mountain Valley Community Church (MVCC) under the interim leadership of Pastor Chris Lewis. A core group of members in this country congregation have taken on the mission of making life easier for men and women in the Armed Forces. They have never turned away any military person someone wanted added to the ministry.
Love Our Troops started with two Army soldiers and a Marine: one attended MVCC before he went into the service, one was the grandson of a member, and the third met church members through one of their missionaries. The men really loved getting mail, but they also shared that the post exchange [PX] didn’t always have the kind of supplies they needed and that, at times, they were really desperate for certain items. Church member Sue Graff stated that women at the church were concerned about the troops…and asked if she could see to it that they got a box regularly. “Well, that didn’t seem like a very big project—one I could handle—and surely the war would be over soon—so I agreed.”
At first, Sue and another church member purchased items like drink mixes and snacks, and another member baked cookies. Gradually, others started donating as well. Sue boxed everything and prepared it for mailing from home. “I was never interested in ministering to the troops before taking this on,” says Sue. “I don’t come from a military family, but I was always bothered that the troops returning from Vietnam were treated so poorly.”
As additional requests for troop support started coming in, many people at MVCC became involved in donating items and in writing notes; eventually, the number of requests grew to be about 40 servicemen being served monthly during the busier times. The amount of servicemen does vary a lot because some of the servicemen come home, and then others go back out. Sue continues to coordinate the monthly packing and distribution of boxes, but now she has a core group of volunteers to depend on, as well as her husband, Bob.
On the second Monday of every month, about half a dozen women meet at MVCC at 9:30 to pack boxes. It takes about one to two hours to complete the job. Hygiene items, snacks and drinks, paper and pens, games, books, magazines, Christian magazines or pamphlets, DVDs and CDs all go into a 12x12x5½ USPS Flat Rate Boxes. Each box costs $12.95 to mail. In the winter the group adds warm socks and scarves, and in summer they make cooling ties or scarves. They also include notes or letters in every box. At Christmas, MVCC sends an extra large flat rate box full of Christmas decorations, cards, paper and ribbon to the troops stationed in Afghanistan and Iraq.
MVCC budgets an annual amount that covers the postage for mail and boxes. This is a formidable amount of money. Mail to troops stationed stateside is sent once a month and overseas mail is included in the care packages. It is hard to find enough people to write notes, so mail overseas, and especially to Afghanistan and Iraq, take precedence. At Christmas, a special effort is made to send stateside troops mail, homemade fudge and a Christian booklet.
There are restrictions about what can and cannot be sent into war zones, and the safety and confidentiality of the soldiers must also be taken into consideration. Addresses are kept confidential. Some of the items that cannot be shipped include aerosol sprays, expired food, canned food, candles, lighters, matches, hotel samples, and contraband items like tobacco, alcohol or knives.
The military prefers that home baked goods are not sent overseas for security reasons, but the troops beg for homemade goodies, says Sue. Homemade food can only be sent during the months of November through March or April because of the hot, dry weather. Chocolate is another item that is difficult to ship overseas because of the weather. The military requires that all food be in sealed plastic containers.
“Actually things have improved a lot since we began,” continued Sue. “Only the remote outposts probably are so desperate now.” Here is a top ten list of items most wanted items:
• Powdered stick drinks like Crystal Lite and brands with electrolytes
• Instant Coffee in sticks (each stick makes a cup)
• Beef Jerky
• Protein Bars
• Various nuts in small packets
• Hot chocolate in individual packets
• Gel hand sanitizer
• Shaving cream in non-aerosol tube
• Travel size hygiene items
Everything comes from church members and interested people in the community. Although donations are welcome, cash is preferred because supplies can be purchased in bulk or on sale, and because of the very specific Department of Defense guidelines about shipping to troops in war zones. In spite of being very careful, occasionally boxes will be opened for inspection if postal inspectors suspect something is wrong, another reason why steps are taken to protect the confidentiality of the troops and their families. Each box is packed individually. No two are exactly alike and they mostly go to male soldiers; they rarely have any women troops. Sue says that “God has always provided enough when it comes to supplies, packers and money. The weakest area is handwritten notes.”
A referral sheet is completed for each soldier entered into the program. This contains basic information about their personal and military status, location, and if the soldier wants to hear from Love Our Troops. Again, some of this information is kept confidential and some is used to keep up with military assignments so the group doesn’t lose track of the participating troops. A card is made up with the serviceman’s photo, first and last name, and service branch. On the back is a brief bio to help the MVCC member praying for the troops know for whom they are praying. The church prays for their health and safety, wisdom, family, etc. unless they are given more specific prayer requests.
The troops involved in the program are from all over the United States. They are stationed in Afghanistan, Iraq, Japan, Korea, China, Kuwait, Guam, “Out to Sea” and stateside. This ministry is from the heart, and the MVCC group doesn’t expect to be thanked—in fact, most of the time they don’t hear from the troops. But once in while they receive a letter like this one from Mike, one of their first three servicemen:
I have not thanked you for all the many things that you have sent so I would like to do that now, thank you from the bottom of my heart. It means so much to me. I have enjoyed everything that you have sent me, but most of all I am thankful for the letters those mean so much more. It shows me that you are not just church but you are a family, a family that did not judge me when I was a young lost boy and now stand beside the man that goes to war. Although I do not make much money, I still feel like the richest person in the world because of all of you that care so much about me.
“Most of the troops come to us when they are young,” states Sue, “and I just couldn’t imagine any of my own boys serving at that age. My heart goes out to them and I kind of think I know what their parents must feel, too.” And what happened to the three young men who inspired this ministry? Benjamin is back in Afghanistan, Mike is in the Army National Guard in Fresno, and Raul is a Marine drill instructor at Camp Pendleton.
Sue sums it all up by saying, “After I got started, God got hold of my heart and gave me a burning desire to minister to the troops.” Love Our Troops started in 2006, and the people at MVCC will continue to minister to them as long as they need to.
“…Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.” John 13:34
If you would like to help out with the “Love Our Troops” Ministry, send a check made out to Mountain Valley Community Church and send to MVCC, P.O. Box 574, Squaw Valley, CA 93675. Please note that this is a donation for “Love Our Troops.”