A Week with Heroes
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Last week, I had the privilege of traveling to Germany with Fr Pat, our inspirational vocalist, and Emily Curtis, one of our very own Operation Support Our Troops angels, who served as Fr Pat's music accompanist . It was truly a week none of us will ever forget! We arrived in Frankfurt on Thursday morning after an all night flight from Newark, exhausted, but excited and anxious to start our "A Gift of Song" tour for our soldiers and their families. After meeting our military host, we took a driving tour of Hanau which would be our "home base" for the next week. Our first experience of the autobahn with NO speed limits really woke us up!!! Oh, my, roller coaster rides are more relaxing than that drive!!!

Because of the threat of terrorism to the soldiers and their families in Germany, security is VERY tight. Everywhere we went, we had to be escorted by our host, passports were checked and rechecked and the car was randomly searched. Anyone without a military ID had to be escorted by an ID card holder at all times. At everyy kaserne (military installation) we visited, the security situation was the same. Our military live in an heightened stage of alert at all times. Having lived in Germany before 9/11, it saddened me to see huge cement barricades and security guards and police and armed soldiers in sandbag reinforced bunkers at the gates of all our military installations, but we have no choice. Terrorism is alive and well throughout Germany.

Thursday was a VERY long day, but Fr Pat and Emily still rehearsed for a few hours that night in preparation for the next day's concert. We wanted to ensure that everything was ready for the concert, the first of many that Fr Pat performed for our soldiers and their families. Friday afternoon, we drove about two and a half hours to Baumholder, the home of the First Armored Division. The 1AD spent fifteen months in Iraq before redeploying this past summer. The soldiers and their families are just now starting to return to work full time and are starting their preparation for their next deployment, so Fr Pat's concert was truly a wonderful calming and healing experience for these soldiers and their families. I sat in the audience and watched the soldiers and family members and you could see them really connecting with Fr Pat and his music. After the hour long concert, as I was helping Emily pack up her music (she was absolutely fabulous and added so much to Fr Pat's concert), we both noticed how the soldiers just surrounded Fr Pat, wanting to talk, wanting to share their thoughts and thanks with him.. Before the concert, the troops were very quiet, very much in their own thoughts, but when Fr Pat began to sing, it was like he hit a switch within each one of the troops and we began to see their personalities and their emotions start to show, from laughter to tears,and I literally saw the gamut of feelings come flowing out of the troops and their families. Fr Pat definitely hit a nerve in each one of the troops and when the concert ended, he spent well over an hour visiting with them. Fr Pat told me later that some of the troops shared very private thoughts with him and thanked him for taking the time to come and sing for them and to begin healing the wounds that no one sees...

One of the troops that videoed the concert for us was helping us pack things up, and while we were working, Emily asked if he had ever received a box with an OSOT sticker like the pin we were wearing (we wore our OSOT pins everywhere we went). His face started to beam and he said, "Yes, Ma'am, I got a bunch of boxes from your people and they were AWESOME! The best part was they were from strangers, from Americans that wanted me and my soldiers to know that they supported us. Please thank everyone who sends boxes cuz you will never know how important they are to the troops. Everything they send, we use, but more importantly, knowing that people care about us and write us is the best. Not to get any mail at mail call is the worst feeling in the world, so OSOTwhen those boxes come, it's the BEST!!! Please keep sending them to the troops cuz they really need to know that America cares. It's really tough over there and no one can imagine the conditions and the things we've had to do." With that, he got very quiet and went over to talk privately with Fr Pat. Yes, they have deep wounds, yes, they are heroes and yes, we were touched to know that OSOT boxes do make a difference to our troops.

OSOTEach day, we were at a different military installation for a concert. Each group had a wonderful meal with Fr Pat before the concert, so by the time he begin to sing, he had already connected with the troops and their families. Weisbaden, Darmstardt, Hanau, and on Sunday, the military sponsored a "Rhine River Cruise" for the troops and their families. For five hours, we cruised up and down the beautiful Rhine River viewing some of the most beautiful scenery in Germany. Castles bordering the shoreline on steep clifts on each side up and down the river. Absolutely breathtaking! Amidst this magnificent backdrop, Fr Pat sang for over two hours, and his voice graced not only our ship, but the surrounding countryside. There were soldiers and their families from all over that region of Germany, over 200 people attended from tiny little toddlers to parents of troops visiting. The diversity of the group was amazing..

Our military is made up of so many different ethnic backgrounds and Fr Pat sang to each of them. He sang special songs to the children; he sang to the young married couples; and the songs directed at the single soldiers so obviously touched them. As the day went on, and he realized that there were Haitian family members amongst our group, he sang to them in French and he sang to OSOTour soldiers from the Philippines in their native tongue as well. The weather was beautiful and Fr Pat's voice was piped all throughout the ship, so if you were not in the main dining room listening to him, you could still hear him on the top deck of the boat. I told him that he "truly serenaded the entire Rhine River region of Germany, and on that day, those hills came alive ~ with the sound of music." When he wasn't singing, he was sharing a meal with the troops and their families, laughing with them, talking quietly or just listening as the troops shared their stories. It was truly a day we will always remember!!!! As I said earlier, it was amazing to see the way the troops gravitated to Fr Pat. So many wanted to talk with him and he found time to visit with each of them. He just knew what to say and how to say it both in his music and privately.

So many of the troops recognized our logo pins and made a point to ask us to thank everyone who sent OSOT boxes and how much they meant to them when they were deployed. When we left the boat, there were lots of hugs all around and I can truly say, we made lots of new friends, even reconnected with friends we hadn't seen in many years and had no idea were going to be there. Fr Pat even met a family that he had met in 1979 and hadn't seen since, so the world is truly a very small planet!

Each of the young troops we had the privilege to meet truly IS a hero. Many of these young men and womenOSOT saw horrific things while they were deployed, things none of us can even imagine, but they did what was asked of them, they did their jobs with dignity, they chose "the harder right" and even though they don't consider themselves heroes, in fact, they blush when you say that, each and everyone of these brave young men and women will ALWAYS be heroes in my book. They deserve our thanks, they deserve our support and as Americans, they have our unending gratitude. We as a country certainly can be proud of the caliber of our military .. They are truly the BEST!!!

On Monday, our visit to Landstuhl Regional Medical Center was something Emily and I had been preparing for for weeks, both mentally and physically. Before we left for Germany, I had spoken to the head Chaplain at LaOSOTndstuhl, Col. Eric Holmstrom, and inquired as to the needs of our wounded, injured and ill troops. He told me that since my last visit last fall, a corporation had donated approximately $30,000 and the Pastoral Services had used the money to buy 70+ personal DVD players for the bedridden troops. The troops sign them out from the Chaplain's office and when they are released from the hospital, the DVD players are returned so another troop can then use them. However, their movie selection was pretty meager, so Emily and I took money that had been donated for our wounded and we bought 150 DVDs, 150+ boxes of "movie candy" and $1000 worth of phone cards. The Chaplains were thrilled to accept these gifts for our troops.

We also told the Chaplains about our new "Take a Wounded Soldier to the Movies" program. We said that the good folks of OSOT would continue to resupply their DVD collection, their movie candy and hopefully, their phone cards. They loved the idea and even the head Chaplain asked if we had any "Dots", his favorite movie candy, in our boxes. We said we did, tossed him a box of Dots and told him to pick up a funny DVD, another box of candy and go watch a flick with one of the troops.

The staff is absolutely overjoyed with our movie pack idea. Their DVD library went from 24 DVDs to 175 with our donation and as they receive your packets, it will just continue to grow. Make sure that you put our OSOT sticker on the outside of your packet, but also on the back of the DVD case. That way, it will remind the troops that when they leave, the movies as well as the DVD players stay with the chaplains for the next troops. We also brought 250 large bags of suckers that had been donated by a great company from Ohio. But the best thing we brought were hundreds of letters, drawings and cards from school children and senior citizens.. Emily and I read many of these notes and they were so full of love and encouragement and so funny that I'm sure they will bring a smile to our troops as they recover.

How I wish you all could have been with us as we walked the halls of Landstuhl. We had two Chaplains who escorted us around the hospital and took us to the various wards to visit our troops. The hospital now has nine fulltime Chaplains.. They are all reservists, stationed at Landstuhl for a year as an unaccompanied tour (without their own families) so 100%, no 1,000% of their time is spent ministering to our troops. These men and women are unbelievable and the job they do each day is phenomenal. Every plane from "down range" (their term for the war zone), regardless of the time, is met by the medical staff as well as the Chaplains. They are there not only for the patients, but also the troop's family. Their job has to be one of the toughest jobs anyone could have and yet, these great folks do it every day, 24/7 with dignity, compassion and grace. Our troops are truly in the best of hands, not only on the medical side of the house, but also the spiritual side.

Not much has changed since my visit last fall except the faces of our young soldiers and marines and the fact that we have far more wounded and injured troops now than a year ago. As we entered the wards, the one thing that really struck me was the number of small Marine flags outside of so many of the rooms.. Each Marine in Landstuhl has a red "Semper Fi" flag over his nameplate on the doors in the wards. It took my breath away to see so many flags on so many doors. So many wounded Marines, so many wounded soldiers, so many young brave troops! Unfortunately with the insurgency throughout Iraq, the IEDs, the car bombs, the mortar attacks and the RPGs, the wounds are far more serious and far more frequent than last September. The one thing that has remained constant is the quality of our troops. Not a SINGLE complaint, not a bit of bitterness, more worried about their buddies than themselves and just wanting to get better so they can get "back to business" and "finish their mission". Emily and I felt so privileged to be in the presence of these heroes..

We both had our "Bob Hope " faces on during our entire visit. When Bob Hope would visit the wounded during Viet Nam, he would always tell the folks with him that when they visited the hospitals, they were there to bring joy and a smile to the wounded and no matter how badly the troop was injured, they were NEVER allowed to cry in the presence of the troops.. Trust me, that is REALLY tough, especially when you look at these great young men and women and see the face of kids that are the same age as our own sons and daughters. We swallowed hard after visiting some of the more seriously wounded, but we kept our emotions in check.

A few of the troops we met will forever stay in my mind and heart.. There was a young troop, he couldn't have been more than 19. The Chaplains had told us that he was full of shrapnel wounds from the base of his neck all down his back, buttocks and thighs and these wounds were raw, that the Docs had him laying on his stomach because it was too painful to put any pressure on his wounds. As is the protocal at Landstuhl, the Chaplain always enters the patient's room first and asks if they would like visitors. We had brought a few Gameboy advance systems and games and a CD player and CDs and phone cards to give to the patients that we were able to visit. When the Chaplain came out of this room, I suggested that she just take the Gameboy and give it to this troop, that we didn't need to disturb him. She asked us to wait just a couple more minutes and then she told us we could go in the room. This young troop had asked the nurse to turn him over so he could meet us sitting up in his bed, not on his stomach! He wasn't aware that we knew how badly his wounds on his back were, so to see him sitting up in his bed , knowing the pain he must be feeling was almost too much for Emily and me to bear. We visited with him, asked him how he was doing and where he was from, etc and NEVER once did he let on that he must have been in terrible pain, but he didn't want us to know. He wanted to be treated like any other patient.. What courage!!! When I asked him if he thought he might be able to use the Gameboy, his eyes got as big as saucers and his smile could have lit up Times Square.. There truly was a twinkle in those big blue eyes and for a minute, I don't think he felt any pain. He thanked us and we told him, that it was us that wanted to thank him for what he did for all of America.

Another troop we met was a young Marine from south of Birmingham, Alabama with the thickest southern drawl you ever heard. His left arm had been shattered during a fire fight in Fallujah just two weeks after arriving in Iraq. He wanted to talk, so we listened and during our conversation, we asked if he had received a neck cooler and if they helped with the heat. He kept telling us that the neck coolers really worked and "they had lots of uses". I asked him other than using them around their necks, how else were they used. He told us they used them under their helmets to stay cool, but more importantly, he said , in a very matter of fact tone, "They really are good to use as tourniquets". Needless to say, Emily and I swallowed hard at that comment.
As we continued through the wards, we met more great troops. We met Mike, a young E-3 with a transportation unit who had been hit by a hand grenade. The fact that he survived was a miracle in itself. He had an eye wound, but the doctors have told him that most of his sight should come back in the next six months. He told us that he drives a truck in the convoys and that the neck coolers were lifesavers. They are the extent of the "air conditioning" on their long and dangerous trips to get supplies to the troops. He told me that they had received just a few neck coolers, so he gave me the name of his First SGT and I told him that as soon as I returned home that I would send 150 coolers and his picture to his unit. He started to laugh and said "I was always in trouble with the SGT, so he will never believe that I got you to send coolers to them. He'll think I'm pretty cool after all." He also wanted us to see his POW bracelet that he wears for Sgt Maulpin who was captured from his unit. He told us how everyone in the unit wears a bracelet and prays for his safe return. What a character Mike was, but even with his injury, his personality was still intact. We gave him a Gameboy as well and he said, "Hey, by the time I get my sight back in my other eye, I'll really be good cuz if I can get good with one eye, just think how great I'll be with two!"

The last patient we visited was a young soldier that was really in a lot of pain. He had survived a road side bomb. He right knee had pins coming out of it, his left arm was an open fracture and he had so much shrapnel in his back that he could only lay on his side. He had all kinds of tubes coming out of different parts of his body, but not a single complaint. We gave him some phone cards and thanked him for all he has done for our country and he reached out to shake my hand with his good arm, smiled and thanked US for taking the time to come and see him.. As I left his room, I could hardly breathe, my heart hurt so badly for him.

All I can say is that Emily and I were in the presence of heroes. EVERY single troop we met and all the others that we didn't get to meet are heroes, pure and simple. As you walk through the hospital corridors, you don't see Democrats or Republicans, you see AMERICANS, wounded in their bodies, but not their spirits, proud warriors. I will always cherish the time I was able to spend with these brave troops.

`Before we left, the Chaplains took us to see the clothes closet where the troops come to get basic needs while they are at Landstuhl. I saw clothes and sweatsuits and T-shirts that OSOT had sent . The chaplains gave us their "wish list", and I gave them my word that OSOT would continue to help them in any way we could. As we headed back to Hanau to get ready to fly home the next morning, I felt such an overwhelming feeling of respect and pride in the young Americans that we had the privilege to visit. True American Heroes, true sons and daughters of our great country.

As Emily and I flew home,(Fr Pat continued to do concerts and also visited Landstuhl and sang for the wounded over the past week) we reflected on everything we had seen, everyone we had met, and how we could do more for our wounded and our deployed soldiers. The week was exhausting, but at the same time invigorating because we both came home with a renewed determination to do MORE to help our wounded and our deployed troops. Everywhere we went, we were greeted by soldiers who had received our boxes ~ soldiers who told us how important it was to them, and to their men, to receive care packages from home ~ care packages from total strangers. Unfortunately, we also heard that there are many, many other troops who never received ANY mail, much less a boodle box . The need is so great.

I am appealing to EVERYONE to consider helping Operation Support Our Troops send as many boxes as we possibly can to our deployed troops, especially for the holidays. We have thousands of names just begging to be adopted, we have lots of chaplains that have offered to accept our boxes and to get them to troops that they know receive no mail. If you are willing to take the name of a troop or send a box to a chaplain, it would be much appreciated. Consider it a gift to yourself. Helping a troop know that he is appreciated is about the greatest gift any of us could give or receive. Make it a family project for the holidays.

OSOT works under just a few simple rules. The security of our troops is tantamount, and the privacy of all our soldiers must be maintained. As such, you must be a member of OSOT in order to participate. However, membership "costs" you nothing but time . caring . and, if you are willing, the cost of creating and shipping a boodle box to one (or more) of our deployed troops. We have no requirements as to the size of the box you send (although we have found that most of our members ship boxes that weigh between 15 - 25 pounds) and we have no requirement that you send boxes with any set frequency. Once you have "adopted" a soldier, you are free to send as much boodle as you wish . or as little as one box. To fill a box will cost anywhere from 25 to 50 dollars, depending on the amount and type of treats you send. Also, depending on where you are located, the postage will be approximately 8 to 25 dollars per box. . If packing an individual box is a hardship for you, PLEASE ask your friends, neighbors or co-workers to adopt a few troops and then everyone contribute and pack a few communal boxes.

If you are interested in joining OSOT, please go to www.west-point.org/family/support-our-troops and click on the "subscribe now" box. If you have any questions, please contact us at support-our-troops-owner @west.point.org. Rest assured that we are with you all along the way ~ to answer your questions about customs regulations and shipping, to offer suggestions of what the soldiers want and need, and to help you however you need help.

Our members have sent in excess of 230 TONS of care packages, one box at a time, and trust me, it is contagious. Once you start sending, you really do get hooked and you want to continue. It's our small way of being vested in the war on terrorism. Our motto is "As long as they are there, we'll be here". Get creative, think of things that will make the troops smile, that they can use, When you don't even have basics, EVERYTHING is used and appreciated. One soldier's wish was "some soft toilet paper". It doesn't get more basic than that!

If you are not ready to jump in immediately, why don't you test the waters of OSOT by participating in our new "take a wounded soldier to the movies" project? Simply purchase a new or slightly used DVD and a box of movie candy and/or microwave popcorn, add a 120 minute AT&T phone card and most importantly, a note of thanks and encouragement, pop them in a padded envelope and send them to:

Landstuhl Regional Medical Center
ATTN: MCEUL-CLH/Chaplains Office
CMR 402
APO AE 09180

We have also just received a request to assist three severely handicapped soldiers obtain vans so that they can be transported to their various medical appointments, etc.. While the VA will customize the vans (at a cost of $16,000 each), the patient must supply the actual van. The vans that are needed range in price from $35,000 to $45,000 each. So, if ANYONE can help us find a car dealership or a group of dealers who would be able to help us or a benefactor willing to help these heroes, please contact me at mksalomone@cox.net . Operation Support Our Troops is a 501©(3) charitable organization and all donations are deductible. Certainly, if Oprah can get Pontiac to give $7 million dollars of cars to her audience, there HAS to be someone somewhere that can help us help these deserving troops!

There are so many needs, so many troops to help and I hope that you can find it in your heart to help as many of our troops as you are able.. If not, please hold them in your thoughts and prayers that they continue to perform their duties and come home safely when their work is done. Bless each of you and have a blessed holiday season.

Mary Kay Salomone