Albuquerque resident helps deployed troops write home

  • Published
  • By Sheila Rupp
  • Nucleus journalist
Sarah Coca doesn't have a loved one in the armed forces and has no ties to the military, but you wouldn't know that from the tremendous amount of time, blood, sweat and tears -- not to mention money, that she has put into what she calls "Letters Home."

In July 2005, Ms. Coca says she was astounded by video she saw on the news showing long lines of servicemembers waiting in 120 degree heat to access their e-mail in Iraq. Immediately, she knew something had to be done. Ms. Coca started going to local thrift shops to purchase greetings cards and stationery. She didn't know anyone overseas and says she had no idea how she would get the materials there but felt compelled to do it. Ms. Coca said she originally called the project Letters Home because she wanted the troops to have a way to send messages back to loved ones.

She eventually came across, a Web site created to give information to civilians that wanted to send letters and packages to deployed troops. Ms. Coca found a troop and sent a box of correspondence. Later she received a note scrawled on a paper napkin that thanked her and said that she had no idea how much the troops needed that type of material.

Some of her motivation for the project came from her upbringing and the fact that many of the servicemembers had a similar one.

"I didn't come from a family of money; there are a lot of soldiers that did not come from a family of money. Some of these families may not have a computer to even use e-mail and many can't afford to send phone cards," she said.

Ms. Coca said that she contacted schools, churches, veterans and military groups, but that no one wanted to help take on the cause, so she continued on her own. She contacted printing companies, greeting card companies and any one else who might donate merchandise that would otherwise be thrown away -- cards without envelopes, envelopes without cards, seasonal items and anything else she could get her hands on.

"It's all leftover stuff ... it's material that would otherwise get put in a dumpster or shredded, but the servicemembers can use it," she said. "It would be a shame to see any of this get destroyed when there is a purpose for it."

Each box has an average of 300 pieces of correspondence, ranging from stationery to greeting cards. All materials are individually sorted, counted and bundled into what Ms. Coca calls "grab and go correspondence materials." Ms. Coca sends writing materials for all holidays and even separates cards if they are gender-specific. She includes a business card with her name and address in each packet, but she isn't looking for words of appreciation. She says that she includes the information so that if something happens to the box in transit, postal workers know who to contact.

After Christmas of 2005, she went out and bought over $1,000 worth of greeting cards, stationery and gift wrapping materials that she packed into her little Saturn.

Ms. Coca said: "I've been running on completely no budget. Whatever was needed I've paid for and I've gone into some debt doing it, but it's something that still needs to be done. It's an important thing to do."

She hand-packs every priority mail box and stacks them around her small apartment. Her sole workspace for the entire course of the project has been a small folding television table. Everything is sealed in plastic bags, labeled and then tucked into the boxes. She has personally sorted, counted and packed every item that has gone into the boxes. Ms. Coca's apartment has become a fortress of the red, white and blue boxes that stacked the entire length of her hallway and any empty space in her living room, bedroom and dining area.

During 2005, 325 boxes of stationery and greeting cards were sent overseas. Many of those boxes traveled overseas with the help of military cargo transport. Ms. Coca came to know Debra Selisky, the mobilization and deployment assistant for the local Army Reserve. Ms. Selisky's husband is stationed at Fort Bliss, Texas, and the two helped Ms. Coca get the boxes transported to Fort Bliss and onto military transport to make it to deployed servicemembers. Until April of this year, Ms. Selisky was able to help coordinate transport for Letters Home. Ms. Coca said that in October she was told that no more troops would be leaving Fort Bliss until after the New Year. She said that is a good thing, but there are still troops there that need materials to write home on. Now, she must find an alternate way to get the boxes into the hands of servicemembers.

Last year, Chaplain (Capt.) David Daus of the chapel here also helped to get the word out at chapel services that resulted in 46 families from Kirtland picking up boxes that Ms. Coca had packaged to mail. Chaplain Daus referred Ms. Coca to chapel attendee and military spouse Beth Rothrock, who has volunteered to help Ms. Coca get her boxes to servicemembers this year. Ms. Rothrock arranged for members of security forces here to help pick up the packages at Ms. Coca's home and deliver them to the Family Support Center where members of Team Kirtland can pick the boxes up and take them to the post office. The priority mail boxes cost $8.10 to mail and are already addressed.

Tech. Sgt. David Hoose of security forces was one of the volunteers to help pick up the boxes from Ms. Coca's home to deliver them to the Family Support Center and thought the project was a good idea.

"I've deployed twice and I know how important it is to receive support from your home station. It doesn't matter how big or small, anything we can do to support our deployed brothers and sisters is always worth the effort," Sergeant Hoose said.

Master Sgt. Robert Scott, security forces first sergeant, also helped to load the boxes: "I did not realize how big the project was until I got there. I felt privileged to be a small part of the project and I am continually amazed at the generosity behind getting all the cards. I know the deployed folks will really appreciate them."

This year, Ms. Coca has packaged 448 boxes for deployed servicemembers. There were nearly 200 boxes housed at the Family Support Center in the consolidated support building.

Ms. Rothrock said that in only one weekend the chapel community here picked up approximately 100 boxes to mail from the Family Support Center, but there are still 100 boxes remaining. She also said that the Rio Grande Valley Chapter of the Blue Star Mothers have offered to send some of the cards out in their holiday care packages.The boxes need to be picked up and mailed to servicemembers before Veterans Day so that it gives time for servicemembers to receive the boxes and send letters back home before the holidays. The boxes are already addressed to a contact from Team Kirtland who is currently deployed to Balad Air Base in Iraq.

"I think this is a worthwhile project that will help put smiles on troop's faces ... Our squadron encompasses both Air Force and Army troops from all career fields so we're able to reach across service lines to a great number of people," Tech. Sgt. Roberto Estrada.

Ms. Coca welcomes donations of packaging tape, greeting cards of any kind, envelopes of any size, aluminum foil, quart-sized zipper-close bags and return address labels. Her only request is that all items be clean and neat with no tears or stains. She welcomes donations of supplies but does not accept monetary donations and says she would welcome help from anyone who would make a serious commitment.

Ms. Coca is already collecting supplies to send next year. "I plan on keeping it up until there's not a reason to do it anymore," Ms. Coca said.

Boxes are available to be picked up to mail at the front desk of the Family Support Center in the Consolidated Support building. Questions about the boxes or mailing procedures can be addressed to the Family Support Center at (505) 846-0741.