Groups Combine Resources, Give Troops Valentines

 By Paul X. Rutz
 American Forces Press Service

 WASHINGTON, Feb. 13, 2006  - Two organizations have teamed up to send valentines to troops in Baghdad in a union made possible by "America Supports You."

Since November 2004, the Defense Department program to facilitate grassroots and corporate support for the nation's troops has worked to bond supporters, using a combination of special events, public service announcements and a Web site.

Paul Holton, founder and president of "Operation Give," connected with Shauna Fleming, the 16-year-old founder of "A Million Thanks," a group sending letters from schoolchildren to troops overseas, through the America Supports You Web site.

"It's just an incredible connection. I'm so glad that he contacted me," Fleming said. "That's exactly what the Web site is used for, and so I was really excited when he told me that that's how he had found me."

Before this partnership, Fleming's group had been paying shipping costs out of pocket, often using monetary donations from the public, to send boxes filled with letters to troops overseas. Students at Fleming's school sorted, censored and packed the letters, while her family members handled most of the logistics.

This time, things were easier, Fleming said. Thanks to her group's new partnership with Holton, a FedEx truck came directly to her school in California Feb. 7 to pick up the 200,000 valentines the students had collected. Fleming expects the packages to make it to Baghdad just in time for Valentine's Day.

"With FedEx as our shipping partner, we have the ability of getting things moved and distributed with FedEx's help," said Holton.

Holton, a top-ranking chief warrant officer in the Army National Guard, is also an account manager with FedEx, giving his operation a natural connection with the worldwide shipping company. He said he had been looking for a chance to use that unique link to help other organizations give more aid to troops overseas.

He said attending the first-ever America Supports you grassroots summit, held at the Pentagon in December, helped create many valuable connections.

"To interact with other organizations that were doing similar things and wanted to connect and perhaps play off of each other's strengths" was an excellent way to help promote the cause, he said. "It's very difficult doing it on our own.... Most of us are all volunteers, and we're using our own money to make this happen."

Holton, also known as also known as "Chief Wiggles," began Operation Give in fall 2003, while he was serving in Iraq. He called it an efficient way to distribute aid to Iraqi children, improving on the informal supply chain that had started trickling into the country, thanks to concerned American citizens.

"I had the opportunity to interact with hundreds and hundreds of Iraqis and with their families," he said. "We started passing out toys and school supplies to children." The effort took off from there, and it soon became its own corporation.

As one of many soldiers doing humanitarian work in Iraq, Holton said he is concerned that "the American people don't really see the better side of what Iraq is really all about," but the chance to work closely with other grassroots organizations might help change that.

"Shauna's about supporting the troops, and we're about supporting the troops with supplies and resources so that they can build bridges to span misunderstanding and hatred," he said. "I think ASY is a fantastic organization.... There's great synergy here."