As troops come home, care package makers prepare for withdrawal

Hillsborough, New Jersey, is home base for one of the country’s largest operations sending care packages to soldiers.  In the first segment in a series looking at how withdrawing troops from Iraq is affecting the Delaware Valley, WHYY looks at what’s next for Operation Shoebox New Jersey and the hundreds of packages the non-profit churns out every month.When you look inside the small warehouse in Hillsborough, it’s not tough to guess the number one item Operation Shoebox New Jersey volunteers ship to troops abroad.  

The warehouse is packed hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of cases of Girl Scout Cookies. 

“Actually a couple of thousand cases here, times 12–there’s 12 boxes in each case.  And that’s kind of our signature,” said Rod Hirsch, standing next to the wall of Girl Scout Cookies.  “Nothing more American than that.  Whether you grew up in Dubuque, Iowa or downtown Elizabeth or Philadelphia,” said Hirsch.The cookies are donated, as are the toiletries and food piled in bins in a nearby room.  Hirsch, who has white hair and a short beard, founded the organization in February 2005.Hirsch proudly shows off the pictures that line the office walls: troops smiling as they open care packages from his group.  “This is a marine unit in Baghdad,” said Hirsch.  “This is at the point the boxes were received.  This is actually a field hospital in Afghanistan and this gentleman right here is the husband of Ted’s cousin.  Right Ted?  That’s Major Dobson.”Ted is volunteer Ted Stirling.  “The main reason I do this is because I was in Vietnam and nobody did this for me.  We were forgotten,” said Stirling. “But I don’t want them to think that they were forgotten.  I want the people who are fighting for us to know that we’re supporting them and what they do.”The retired postmaster flags certain items he comes across, for female soldiers: such as a little box of nice soaps.  Stirling says even people who don’t support specific wars should support the troops.  But he’s not sure he supports the troop withdrawal, “I think that’s a political thing right now.  I think it’s expedient.  But I don’t know if it’s the right thing to do unless they’re right there waiting to go back in because the situation in the world is very. It’s like a tinderbox, you know, and you’ve got to make sure things are done properly.”In addition to soap, cookies, and notes from kids, the care packages also include Beanie Babies–those soft children’s toys that were once all the rage.   

“When my cousin was in Afghanistan in 2009, she’s a medical doctor with the Army and she told me that the Beanie Babies that we send over they give them to the children and it kind of calms them down if they’re going into the hospital,” said Stirling.  “The other Beanie Babies the soldiers actually give them to the children – to build a little confidence and rapport with them.”

In a back room, Dorrie Guarniero stretches tape over the brown boxes that bear the group’s name.  “My son was in Iraq, twice and he was in a very remote area the first time and he said knowing people were thinking of them meant a tremendous amount,” said Guaraniero.  “When the packages came or the letters came they read each others’ mail.  They read everything until it fell apart.”Guarniero doesn’t expect the troop withdrawal from Iraq will affect her work here.”I had a call from Afghanistan recently, from one of my son’s friends.  He said we have three men who get nothing in the mail–nothing.  And he gave me their names, address, so now they will.”Rod Hirsch says the operation may refocus after the last American soldier leaves Iraq. “We will continue to send packages to U.S. troops overseas and right now the focus is on Afghanistan.  A lot of the troops withdrawn from Iraq are remaining in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia.  Since I’ve been alive United States troops have always been overseas somewhere so that’s why I say we’ll remain in business for as long as there’s a need and I don’t see a day anytime soon when we’re going to bring all of our troops back,” said Hirsch.  “We’re still in Germany, we’re still in Japan, we’re still in South Korea.”Dorrie Guarniero shows Hirsch some children’s coloring projects–including one that advises the soldier to keep it in his pocket so he is never alone.She says this work makes her think about the soldiers on the other end of the package delivery operation and how much they appreciate her work.  “When my son was there I was very glad that he had this kind of support and when he came out of the Marines my husband thought I would stop but it’s other people’s children that are there and so I keep right on going,” she said.Now Guarniero is just waiting for everyone else’s children to come home too.



If you would like to contact Operation Shoebox New Jersey call (908) 698-0333 at Veterans Industrial Park, 152 Route 206 South, Hillsborough, N.J., 08844.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal