By Jeanne Sager
MONTICELLO May 25, 2004 Stephanie Johnson isnt pro-Army. Shes pro-soldier.
She doesnt want to talk politics.
She just wants to send a little bit of home to the soldiers fighting in the Middle East.
Singlehandedly, Johnson has become the Sullivan County chapter of Operation Support Our Troops (OSOT), an organization founded by the mother of a West Point grad in 2002 to gather supplies and send goodie boxes to troops in harms way.
Johnsons son, Erik, is a cadet at West Point.
Someday, she fears, he might be on the front lines.
OSOT is her way of giving back if she helps another soldier, maybe someday someone will help her own little boy.
I would like to think that if he wasnt at West Point, Id still be doing it, Johnson said.
But the fact is, OSOT became an option because Johnson is a West Point mom.
When Erik was preparing to graduate from Monticello High School in 2002, the Johnson family took a crash course in the Army world.
Its a very different place to send your kid, she said. Unless youre Army, you dont know anything.
You cant pick up your kid, Johnson continued. You cant call your kid and say, What are you doing this weekend?
Fortunately, she said, there was a great support system for parents with a lot of information.
And one bit of information popped out at Johnson, who has always been in the habit of collecting goodies in boxes to send off to her kids.
OSOT was looking for volunteers people who could collect simple supplies, box them up and ship them off to soldiers.
The Pentagon supplies names of men and women in all areas of the armed forces.
OSOT members simply need to gather the supplies and pay for the shipping.
The idea seemed so simple and it was catching.
Every time you go to the grocery store, you grab a few extra things off the shelves and throw them in a box, Johnson said.
By the end of the month you have a nice amount in your box, and you ship it out, she noted. Then the next month you want to send two boxes, and you get a thank you note, and you want to send three.
Johnson has sent hundreds of boxes already shes enlisted the help of kids at the Cooke school in Monticello, gotten funds and supplies from the Monticello Rotary and Kiwanis, even gotten the assistance of the Crafty Chameleons and Independence Riders the 4-H clubs she helps advise.
Now she wants to take the project to the next step.
Im not a professional fundraiser, Johnson said. I need help.
Johnson read an e-mail from a parent whose son lost his life in Iraq. He had received boxes from OSOT and told his Mom about these people who had never met him, who were so nice to him.
If Johnson had ever considered giving up, that letter ensured she is an OSOT volunteer for life.
Its truly my honor to do this, my privilege, she said. I can tell my kids from now until the cows come home that theyre great but it means a little more when its from someone else because its not your mom or your dad.
A letter from a little girl named Shannon at the Cooke school that she will be sticking in one of the boxes will do wonders for morale.
Dear Soldier, it reads in careful print. Thank you for fighting for us. We appreciate everything you do.
Johnson has a wish list already set up everything from gel insoles for their boots to crossword puzzles and Pop Tarts.
The Army does supply their basic needs, she said. But if Im an Army guy and Im over there, I want some of this stuff.
Pork products are prohibited because they are in Arabic countries and the laws of the land must be respected. Chocolate items will melt in transit, and costly items are a bad idea because they might have to be left behind if the company has to move.
But Johnson said people should send anything they think they might like themselves if they were in a foreign desert far from home.
Johnson is not allowed to release the names or locations of the soldiers she sends boxes to, so anyone who wants to help can drop off items or postage or money, and she will do the rest.
The message we want to get out is that this is what you can do fill the box, send a message, help with the cost of postage, get the box to me and Ill do the rest, Johnson explained.
The post office provides free priority mail boxes and tape, but the average box costs $15 to $20 to send. And the cost of all the items inside can be upwards of $100.
Johnson hopes someone can help with just the cost of postage or a few items.
Checks can be written out to OSOT, and items can be dropped off at the Monticello Library or Cobblestone Florist on Broadway in Monticello. Johnson is working to set up more drop-off spots, and she has set up an account at the First National Bank of Jeffersonville where people can drop donations.
So far, OSOT has sent more than 217 tons of goodies to soldiers.
But the best part, Johnson said, are the letters that the soldiers have gotten from kids, parents, grandmothers and veterans.
Theres no politics in this, she said. Youre supporting a soldier, not the Democratic or Republican viewpoint.
You have to support the soldiers no matter your politics, she said. Im not recruiting for the Army theyd run out of recruits if they were waiting for me.
Im not pro-Army, she continued. But I am pro-soldier.
If she has the name of a Sullivan County soldier, shell send a box his or her way.
But she doesnt care who shes sending something to they all need it.
When something comes to your attention, give it your attention, she said, paraphrasing her favorite quote. Dont just assume someone else will do it thats why you cant just send boxes to your own kids.
Folks who want to help Johnson help the soldiers can give her a call at 796-2339 or e-mail her at OSOT2004@aol.com for more information. Checks or items can be dropped at her home at 279 Cantrell Road, Monticello, NY 12701.