Group Struggles to Ensure Troops Are Remembered

Saturday, 04 Jul 2009 09:24 AM

By Kathleen Walter

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The hot summer sun beats down on two small American flags on the side of busy U.S. Highway 1 in Boynton Beach, Fla. It’s a community made up primarily of retirees, many who served their country proudly.

On this stretch of road, in this town, and on this day, the flags are the only outward sign of American patriotism. They lead to Forgotten Soldiers Outreach, an internationally known non-profit organization that has touched the lives of tens of thousands of U.S. troops.

"Are we going to be able to fulfill our mission of sending a monthly care package for these soldiers?" said Forgotten Soldiers Outreach Executive Director Lynelle Zelnar. "Yeah. I'm concerned."

See Video: Forgotten Soldiers Outreach sends troops a little bit of home - Click Here Now

Zelnar shows his guests around the air-conditioned three-room warehouse donated for the organization’s use. Inside are dozens of boxes of donated goods – everything from baby wipes to beef jerky, toilet paper to socks. They are common, everyday household items troops might otherwise go without. Lovingly packaged by one of several volunteers here, they are shipped to service members who sign up to receive them.

"They want the comforts of home," said Zelnar.

Zelnar founded Forgotten Soldiers Outreach in 2004 after sending a care package to a friend's son stationed in the Middle East. Troubled by the horrors of war, the package lifted the spirits of the soldier and those in his unit. Requests for more poured in, and Zelnar delivered. In the last five years, she estimates she and her team have sent more than 35,000 care packages to troops in Iraq, Afghanistan and around the world.

These days, boxes earmarked for the troops are beginning to stack up, and Zelnar worries about whether her volunteers will be able to continue. Because of the economy and an unpopular war, donations of goods and cash are down 20 percent.

Still, the volunteers – including grandmother Ruth McDonald – continue on their mission.

"I want them home," said McDonald. "I mean I do. I'm going to do everything I can for them while they're over there to make it easier for them."

Letters from the troops prove just how valuable these packages are. Zelnar's eyes tear up with each letter she reads, like this one from the wife of a Blackhawk pilot serving in Iraq.

"Dear Forgotten Soldiers organization, thank you," she reads.

"[He] would drop anything left over from the helicopter to the Iraqi children as they flew over. He also gave stuff to ground soldiers on patrol in Mosul who'd keep it for their personal use to pass out to kids in the city. Your volunteers may think they're sending one box to one soldier but that box may end up going to dozens of soldiers and kids."

John Coleman, the organization's national coordinator, knows firsthand the impact small comforts of home can have on a service member. Coleman is a retired Air Force tech sergeant who relished receiving chocolate chip cookies. Generally arriving broken in their box, Coleman savored every crumb.

"To get something from home or something from somebody you don't even know that's taken the time and – from the heart – packed a box just for you," Coleman said. "That is the most special thing in the world," he said. "It's like you're having Christmas every day of the week."

Less than a week after this reporter first visited Forgotten Soldiers Outreach, the organization was forced to move out, after the building's owner was foreclosed upon (he had donated space to FSO). The volunteers now work from another location.

Against all odds, they are not giving up. Boxes may have to sit until more money comes in, but they vow to get the job done – somehow.

"I will do this job and be with this organization until every man and woman in Afghanistan, Iraq, Kuwait for every man and woman," he said. "When they come home, then we can stop doing this, but until then we're not stopping," said Coleman

"I’m hoping we can find an angel out there to help us," said Zelnar.

Learn more about Forgotten Soldiers Outreach. Go here now.

See Video: Forgotten Soldiers Outreach sends troops a little bit of home - Click Here Now

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