Cookies for Our Troops steps up for soldiers returning to Fort Campbell
After 10 years of providing the comforts of home to deployed soldiers, Cookies for Our Troops organizer Sam Lombardo is no longer surprised when strangers ask him for help.
Even when those strangers have no ties to the Alle-Kiski Valley.
The latest call for help came from a group of soldiers' families at Fort Campbell, an Army base that straddles the border of Tennessee and Kentucky.
“How in the world do people find out about us from halfway across the world?” asked Lombardo.
Lombardo runs the Arnold-based organization that ships snacks, toiletries, tools, entertainment and more to troops stationed in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere.
Cookies also has assisted in making sure returning soldiers receive a proper homecoming — and that's what they are doing for Bravo Company of the 1st Battalion, 1st Brigade of the Army's 101st Airborne at Fort Campbell.
Jessica Conner, the leader of Bravo Company's Family Readiness Group and the wife of 1st Sgt. Ryan Conner, said they try to make the barracks as comfortable as possible for single soldiers returning from Afghanistan this summer.
“They're going into the barracks with no sheets, no pillows, no clean towels, hardly any toiletries,” she said. “They only have what they have on their person, and they've been traveling for two weeks. They're not even allowed to drive for the first 24 hours.”
Conner said the military in the past has provided soldiers with some minimal amenities, but the federal government's budget cuts have done away with even those basics.
Conner said it's bad enough that the single, young soldiers often have no family in the area to greet them when they return.
But she can't stomach the idea of them being uncomfortable during their first nights back in the United States.
“I want them to come home to a room that looks as much like home as it can,” Conner said.
After she posted a plea for donations on Facebook, a friend put her in connection with Lombardo.
Conner said he had lined up $500 in donations within a few hours.
“He called me back and I just started crying,” Conner said. “He's the sweetest, nicest man. Because of him and the kindness and generosity of others, we were able to get blankets, sheets, towels, toiletries, snacks and cold drinks.”
Conner said the donations allowed her to help not just the 22 single soldiers in Bravo Company, but all 50-some single soldiers in the battalion.
They began arriving at Fort Campbell last week and will continue coming home for another week or so.
Lombardo deflected credit to the American Legion and VFW posts in Lower Burrell, which each donated $250 to the effort.
He believes this is the fourth time Cookies for Our Troops has assisted in outfitting barracks for returning soldiers. Usually he knows of a local soldier involved, or at least a local relative, but that's not the case here.
“We have no idea how many people we've touched,” Lombardo said.
Lombardo said Cookies continues to send care packages weekly to deployed soldiers with local connections, even though there currently are no large groups of locally based troops overseas.
Since military operations in Afghanistan are scaling back, Lombardo said the remaining Americans often have fewer amenities than soldiers from earlier deployments.
He said one woman talked of her husband having a hot meal only once every week or so.
“These kids don't have any mess halls,” Lombardo said. “They're eating MREs (Meals Ready to Eat).”
Lombardo said Cookies sent a microwave over to the man's company with boxes of microwaveable meals.
“At least they get something warm in their bellies,” he said.
Lombardo said Cookies will continue to assist troops as long as U.S. military operations overseas continue.
He's hoping local residents and organizations will continue to donate and forward him the names of local soldiers.
“Any families who have members (deployed overseas), drop off their info,” Lombardo said. “We have money to spend and packages to ship. It's hot, and we want to send freeze pops.”
Liz Hayes is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-226-4680 or firstname.lastname@example.org.