Sunday, March 2, 2008

Mail call: Seniors stamp loads of letters to troops

Telegram Staff Writer

It's bad enough when a bill is the only thing sitting in your mailbox.
But you're here in Bell County, reading the paper in your own time and place. The TV's probably on, and you're probably not too worried about being shot.
What if you were a soldier in Iraq or Afghanistan? What if you carried a rifle instead of a cell phone? And what if your name was never said at mail call?
'Think about that. You're over there serving your country, but you don't have anyone at home who misses you. You don't have anybody to send you a card or write you a letter. The thought breaks my heart.'
Connie Swinden's words came fast and earnest as she spoke.
'I want no soldier to think they're unappreciated,' Ms. Swinden said. 'That's why I started writing the cards.'
She writes - and asks others to write - messages of hope, encouragement and thanks to people serving in Operation Iraqi Freedom. The effort is a perpetual project called 'Encouragement Cards for Our Service Men and Women' at the Belton Senior Center, where she works as activities coordinator. The center celebrated the project's one-year anniversary Feb. 5. By that date, a total of 18,000 cards had been mailed. On average, the Belton seniors sign 250 cards each month.
Ms. Swinden obtained the proper address and names of potential recipients from Major James Henry, rear detachment commander of the 1st Brigade Special Troops Battalion.
'Emails of thanks to people at the senior center always came in,' Henry said. (His battalion is back on Fort Hood now, having returned in January.) 'They were like, 'Wow. Somebody took the time to write and send this to me. Who are they? I want them to know how much this card means.''
The battalion has tentative plans to visit the folks at the Belton Senior Center this spring.
'The seniors also sent over candy, homemade cookies, clothes and toys for Iraqi children,' Henry said. 'That was also appreciated.'
Ms. Swinden is pleased with the progress of the Encouragement Card project and has no plans of stopping her work.
'Everybody who's serving is going to get one,' Ms. Swinden said.
That's a big goal for one woman, but she's got people from all sides of the Temple-Belton community helping her.
The congregations of 20 area churches routinely return dictionary-thick bundles of signed encouragement cards to Ms. Swinden, ready for shipping - as do five service organizations and seven individuals. She said these contributors have also helped to pay for postage.
Three local businesses have also adopted Ms. Swinden's cause, offering her stationary supplies and printing discounts.
'It's a lot of help, and I'm grateful for it,' Ms. Swinden said.
But it's just a handful of people, compared to the hundreds of units serving in Iraq.
'We need help,' Ms. Swinden said.

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