By Jeanne Sager
MONTICELLO August 6, 2004 A phone call from Iraq is de rigeur for Stephanie Johnson.
The Monticello mom asked the community for help this spring, telling her story of the thousands of soldiers fighting overseas who could just use a little pick-me-up.
Her son, Erik, is a West Point cadet, and she heard through the Army about Operation Support Our Troops, an organization run by moms of cadets to send a little bit of home to the troops.
With the help of Sullivan Countys generous residents, shes sent 66 goodie boxes overseas since May, almost 1,000 pounds of deodorant and hard candies, beef jerky and toothbrushes.
Almost every box has elicited a response Johnson wasnt prepared to receive.
On a day she was feeling down about the project feeling like people are ready to forget the soldiers in Iraq she got a phone call from a guy named Ray.
He said, I just wanted to call you and tell you we had a really bad day, Johnson recalled. He said, We came back and got the box and shared everything we passed the letters around, and it just made the day so much better.
Letters, cards, even t-shirts have flooded into the Monticello Post Office with thanks for Johnson and the people of Sullivan County.
Some of the letters are really sad, and some are really touching, Johnson said. They never expect another box, they never say that.
They tell me what they liked because they just want to help me make the next box better.
Johnson wants to share these thank yous with everyone who has helped make this project possible, and share them with the people who are thinking of helping in the future.
I shouldnt be the keeper of these, she said.
She wants to share the story of Stephanie and Derek, an Army couple who are both serving in Iraq, each in a different area.
Stephanie sent her a letter last month saying a box arrived on her birthday, a pick-me-up like you wouldnt believe.
She didnt ask Johnson for anything more, just explained that she was in charge of other soldiers who split up the goodies.
She did ask Johnson to send a box to her husband, Derek, if it was possible.
Johnson did as asked, and was surprised to get another thank you letter from the desert, the return address listing the same last name.
This time the note was from Derek, thanking her for her wonderful box, explaining his duties and his background in America.
He didnt ask for anything for himself, just asked if she could send a box to his wife the couple hadnt communicated in quite awhile.
It almost brought tears to Johnsons eyes.
She wants to share their story and share the story of Matt, a soldier who sends his love to the people in Sullivan County.
I can only hope that when my time in the military is up, I can be a successful United States citizen like yourself and do good things, Matt wrote in a letter dated June 21.
You guys really make a difference, he added. Please continue to do what all of you are doing.
The U.S. is the greatest country in the world, and you all have a great part in making it better. Thank you.
For Johnson, his words say it all.
Shes careful to remain apolitical.
In a country preparing for a presidential election, a society barraged by anti-patriot slurs and anti-war decrees, Johnson is staying out of the fray.
Shes not pro-war. Shes pro-soldier.
Operation Iraqi Freedom may have been officially downgraded from war status but there are still men and women in the hot sands of Baghdad and Karbala.
And here I am, Im sitting on my beautiful deck in the beautiful Catskills, Johnson said.
The worst thing for them, serving in Iraq, is thinking that everyone at home has forgotten about you out of sight, out of mind.
But theyre not out of Johnsons mind, and shes sure theyre not out of the minds of the people in the county who have responded to her call.
Shes gotten letters from children to slip in the boxes, letters that always prompt a thank you note from the soldier who received it, saying he passed it around the barracks for everyone to read.
Johnson is continuing to collect toiletries, non-perishable foods, socks and other products the soldiers can use.
She is hoping to bring people together on Sept. 11 to both commemorate the day and do something proactive, using their hands to help a soldier.
Money shes collected will be used to buy products and cover postage, and goodies shes collecting right now will be saved for that day when people can gather at the Monticello Elks Lodge to help box up everything to ship overseas.
Letters of thanks will be on display, and people can play a hand in making those sentiments come to life.
The event will begin at 8:30 a.m., and the moments of Sept. 11, 2001 will be noted at the times they happened. The group will pay tribute to the soldiers who have lost their lives, those who lost their lives on Sept. 11 and those who are fighting today.
To help, call Johnson at 796-2339. Donations of goodies can be dropped at any branch of the First National Bank of Jeffersonville, Cobblestone Florist in Monticello or the Crawford Library in Monticello.
Donations made out to Operation Support Our Troops can be sent to Johnson at 279 Cantrell Road, Monticello, NY 12701 or dropped at any branch of the Jeff Bank.
The power of those 66 boxes has been amazing, Johnson said. It doesnt just touch 66, it touches 666.