Friday, November 14, 2014

For troops, care packages show ‘the little things’ are a big deal

If you read Land Line on a regular basis, listen to our Sirius/XM radio show “Land Line Now” or follow us on social media, chances are you’ve heard about OOIDA’s Truckers for Troops campaign, which is happening all this week.

For eight years now, Truckers for Troops has been raising money to assemble care packages to send to our U.S. military members deployed in combat zones overseas. OOIDA members and corporate sponsors have raised over $400,000 to date – not counting the generous contributions that have already rolled in during our annual telethon, which is happening this week. The way it works is simple – for $35, you can join or renew your OOIDA membership, and 10 percent goes to pay for the care packages. OOIDA matches that 10 percent dollar for dollar.

And just like in life, where it’s the little things that sometimes make the biggest difference, veterans
who have been on the receiving end of the Truckers for Troops care packages say the supplies, personal care items and letters bring a much-needed taste of home to people who are thousands of miles away.

The 507th Engineer Battalion opens up a previous
Truckers for Troops care package.
“We didn’t have a shop or a store on our base, so you can only imagine how nice it is to get anything from magazines to a bar of soap or a toothbrush and toothpaste,” said U.S. Army Capt. Jacob Holl, who received one of the care packages while on deployment in Afghanistan. “It’s always nice to get something from somebody you don’t know. It shows there are people who know it’s not easy. A little love from home can go a long way.”

Holl was just one of several veterans to be interviewed by “Land Line Now” in advance of this year’s telethon. Portions of those interviews are being broadcast during this week’s shows. In addition to interviews with the troops, the show is also reading thank-you letters we received from recipients, and talking with members whose sons and daughters are deployed overseas.

One of those folks is Senior Member Craig Scott, of Lyons, Ga. Scott, who was himself deployed overseas during Operation Desert Storm, signed up his daughter Anisha Taylor and another friend, Army Sgt.  Dave Fulsom to receive care packages while they are on deployment.

“I know exactly how it feels when you receive a care-package like that,” Scott said. “It just motivates you and it’s a morale booster. When I heard about Truckers for Troops, I’m thinking this would be the prime opportunity to do something for them. I didn’t actually have the time to sit there and put a package together, but this would be the opportunity to get a package to them and just knock out two birds at one time.”

Scott said the reaction he got from his daughter and friend when the packages arrived was priceless.

Selection in one of the gift boxes sent out in a
previous Truckers for Troops campaign.
“They couldn’t believe how much stuff it was; they were able to share the stuff with other friends there,” he said. “It just makes (the troops) know that people appreciate them and haven’t forgotten about them. You’re away from home, you’re over there doing your job and you want to be focused on your job. But sometimes you do get, you know, you miss being where you’re from …. When you know people are caring about you, it makes your job easier as a soldier.”

But it’s not just our members who are serving or who have family abroad. The staff at OOIDA and Land Line also have family members who are doing their “patriotic chore.”

Adam Johnson, the son of OOIDA Marketing Coordinator Nikki Johnson, served two tours of duty with the Marines in Afghanistan in 2011 and 2012 as a forward observer.

As part of forward ops, Johnson said he and his unit often didn’t have the creature comforts of an established military base. So while the personal care items and things like socks were much-appreciated, he said the boxes of raviolis his unit received were one of the biggest hits.

“We were just eating MREs the whole entire time,” he said. “When (my unit) saw that ravioli, they went crazy. The sardines in there too. After you eat MREs for so long … it pretty much just tastes like slime.”

And on a personal note, when I found out my cousin, Staff Sgt. Brian Grisolano was going to be deployed at Bagram Air Force Base last fall, I immediately signed him up for a Truckers for Troops delivery. I told him ahead of time to what to expect, but he said even the advance notice couldn’t prepare him for the size of the box.

“There’s a lot of organizations that send care packages to troops overseas, but what I really liked about the Truckers for Troops boxes is it’s not just for one person,” Brian said. “These are really big boxes … so not only am I getting use out of this, but the 12 guys in my room and the 20 to 30 guys in the rooms next to us, everybody can share what’s inside.”

He said one of his unit’s favorite items were the cans of Silly String.

“It really seemed out there at the time but we had a lot of fun with it,” he said. “Every time we got a Truckers for Troops box, within 20 minutes, there’d be a silly string fight.

“It’s easy when you’re home to take for granted that everything is just within arm’s reach,” he said. “So even something real small, that you don’t think is that big a deal, it makes a huge impact on a soldier that’s overseas. Everything we got meant a great deal to me and all my guys.”

Thursday, November 13, 2014

On the road with the Capitol Christmas Tree

The Capitol Christmas Tree moves across the country under the watchful eyes of the U.S. Forest Service, state and local law enforcement and the public. The journey, which began in north central Minnesota in late October, spans about three weeks and more than 17 stops as communities across the country share in the joy and fellowship of the season. For this truck driving reporter, it was a dream sandwiched between two celebrations.

On a blustery day in Wilmington, Ill., schoolchildren gleefully lined up to sign the tarps cocooning the 88-year-old white spruce making its way to the west lawn of the U.S. Capitol Building in Washington, D.C.

Land Line Field Editor Suzanne Stempinski.
Photo courtesy of Debbie Hensley.
According to U.S. Forest Service representative Mike Theune, the tree has a crown spread of 30 feet and a trunk diameter of 30 inches. It was 88 feet tall when it was harvested. Trimmed and prepared for transport, it is roughly 75 feet tall.

To keep the tree at its peak condition, a forester monitors the tree, making sure it stays hydrated and healthy. A specially designed bladder is refilled with up to 45 gallons of water per day. While the chilly temperatures were tough on people, cold weather is good for the tree, allowing it to go into a dormant, resting state.

OOIDA Member Elwood Higdem has been driving truck for 55 years. He’s the man behind the wheel of the Kenworth T880 that hauls the Capitol Christmas Tree. OOIDA Life Member Ken Lundgren is the wheelman for the second truck – a Kenworth T680 Advantage, carrying the ornaments and additional trees that will decorate offices throughout Washington, D.C. 

Higdem relinquished his seat to me for one leg of the journey – a 10-mile trip from Wilmington to Elwood, Ill. 

I’ve been a commercial vehicle driver since before there was a CDL; and I’ve got more than 1.5 million safe miles under my wheels. I’ve pulled reefers and dry vans, flatbed and horse trailers. But I don’t have a lot of experience with over-dimensional loads, so I was excited to have the opportunity to deliver the tree from one destination to another. From the front bumper to the oversize load sign hanging off the back of the trailer measured just under 105 feet. No tight turns for this combo. With flashing lighted escorts in front, and a convoy of support vehicles running behind, it was quite a drive.

Left to right: OOIDA Life Member Ken Lundgren and wife, Pat;
Joan Higdem and husband, OOIDA Member Elwood Higdem.
Photo courtesy of Art Rink/Lifetouch.
People lined up along the street waving, cheering and taking pictures as the truck rolled out. I lined up with the curbs and took turns slowly and with great care as the logistics team had scouted the accesses and angles.

“Be sure to keep the stake on your left and don’t hit the sign as you go around,” advised Higdem as we made our way out of the Wilmington Middle School parking lot. 

These charming old communities with narrow streets were never designed to accommodate equipment this big. The trailer seemed to grow in my mirrors, longer each time I looked. Eventually we made our way onto a main artery and with smiles that got bigger for every mile turned, the procession wound its way to the Community Center in Elwood.

The team waved me to a stop in the middle of the road; my job for the day was done. I set the parking brakes and shut down the engine. Load safe and secured.

Chief of Police Fred Hayes welcomed us to his community. The Kenworth and Capitol Christmas Tree were the centerpieces of their official holiday lighting ceremony, with a huge turnout from the locals. Sandwiches and hot chocolate, cookies and good cheer were in plentiful supply as the day wound down, and the lights came up with stockings and snowflakes adorning light poles throughout the community.

I left Elwood Higdem and his wife, Joan, as well as Ken Lundgren and his wife, Pat, and the caretakers of the trees and their crew, who were planning their travels for the following morning. They were headed to Grand Rapids, Mich., with road construction and a time zone change to factor into their routing. It was another special day in the trip to Washington, D.C.

And for me, I’ll be watching the news as Speaker of the House John Boehner flips the switch at the official lighting ceremony on Dec. 2. The stuff of dreams – delivered.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Instilling respect and gratitude in future generations

Veteran’s Day is an important day around my house – as is Memorial Day, Pearl Harbor Day … You get the pattern.

As a parent you set a lot of goals for yourself when you have children. My list is long, but high up on that list is to instill in my children a deep respect and gratitude for the men and women who have served and who are serving our country in the armed services.
Daniel Craig, a member of the
Grain Valley Marching Eagles,
plays taps atop the U.S.S. Bowfin
over Thanksgiving week 2013.

I can remember distinctly the day I vowed to myself that’s how I would raise my kids.

I was in my early 20s when the National Guard unit stationed in the town where I grew up was sent to Iraq. The town was collectively stunned. It was a small community in northwest Arkansas with a rather large National Guard unit. I doubt there was anyone who wasn’t personally connected to someone who was “going to war.”

For me, my connection was my high school basketball coach – who I adored. Coach Moore left his wife and two daughters, who were right around my age, to go serve.

I wrote coach letters every now and then. Mainly because I liked the guy and it just seemed like the right thing to do. But it turned into a lot more than that.

One of the last letters he sent before coming home really sat me down and made me think. In the letter he asked if there were people who “hate us like they did after Vietnam.”

Admittedly, I was very young when Vietnam ended. I had no recollection of how it really was. All I could tell you was what I learned in the history books. And they fell short on what our soldiers faced when they came home.

I looked out the newspaper office windows and tried to digest his question.

Here we were back home with yellow ribbons tied around everything that didn’t move. Flags lined up and down Main Street. Banners were hung showing support of our troops, everywhere.

I wrote back and told him that he was about to see a heroes’ welcome.

Time has blurred the detail on whether the letter reached him in time. What I remember clearly was seeing him on that float that carried our Guard unit through town during the welcome home parade.

Jake Jones, center, performs with the Grain Valley Marching Eagles
at the U.S.S. Arizona Memorial Thanksgiving week 2013
As I was perched on a corner lamp post (being the diligent journalist photographing the event), I smiled and waved at him when they rounded the corner. He sort of dropped his head and shook it in disbelief and then looked up and smiled.

Coach was a tough dude. That smile spoke volumes. He finally knew what it meant to be a veteran who was treated with respect, honored and thanked for his service.

Then and there I swore if I ever had kids, I would teach them to show respect and gratitude like coach saw and felt the second time around after serving his country.

I won’t go so far as to say “mission accomplished,” but my kiddos do make me proud when I see them walk up to a vet and ask to shake his or her hand. When they were younger, you would have thought they were meeting rock stars when they ran into someone in fatigues at the store.

Now as teens they are getting the bigger and ultimate sacrifices many have made.

Perhaps the most poignant example is my son Jake.
Grain Valley Marching Eagles lay a wreath at the U.S.S. Arizona shrine.
The wall lists all the men who died on the U.S.S. Arizona on Dec. 7, 1941

The Grain Valley Marching Eagles high school band was invited to perform at Pearl Harbor this past Thanksgiving. Here you have 150 some-odd kids on a trip to Hawaii. I couldn’t help but wonder what they would get out of it beyond a righteous tan.

The band performed at the U.S.S. Missouri and the U.S.S. Arizona Memorial. They were also the featured band at the Waikiki Holiday Parade – a parade dedicated to remembering the fallen and honoring military heroes and survivors of Pearl Harbor.

The memories from that trip are powerful for Jake, as they are with all the kids, having met survivors and stood on sacred ground. He still talks often of being over the site of the U.S.S. Arizona and watching the oil bubble up from the wreckage below – tears of the Arizona they are sometimes called.

He called home the night after he visited the memorial.

“Mom, there were so many who died there. There are so many that have died since then. And, here we are a bunch of kids in a parade for survivors. How do we ever do them justice in honoring them?”

I would say his concern in not doing enough is reason enough to think that he gets it.