Stockings for Soldiers

Published 12:00 am Thursday, December 7, 2006

By Katie Scarvey

Salisbury Post

ROCKWELL — On Monday night, the girls of the Miller-Russell American Legion Post 112 Junior Auxiliary got together for a project close to their heart — packing Christmas stockings for soldiers in Iraq.

When these girls talk about “our guys,” they’re not referring to boyfriends but to members of a California-based Marine squadron that they’ve adopted.

Monday evening, the girls formed an assembly line to stuff the stockings, which were priority mailed to Iraq Tuesday to ensure arrival before Christmas.

The auxiliary’s association with the California unit started with a shipment of homemade valentines this past February. This fall, they decided to take on a more ambitious project, raising money to mail Christmas stockings and supplies.

The auxiliary did their first Iraq project several years ago in conjunction with Curt and Geri’s, sending supplies to the Salisbury National Guard serving in Iraq.

The following year that unit was no longer in Iraq, so one of the group’s advisors, Amy Cozart, asked Todd Bowers for information about a unit still stationed there so they could send valentines.

He complied, and one of the commanders of the unit who received the valentines, Major Thomas Heffern, emailed the auxiliary to thank them.

“The Marines of VMU-1 all had big smiles when I handed them the cards…” he wrote.

Heffern explained in the e-mail what his unit does: “Our squadron operates the RQ-2B Pioneer Unmanned Air Vehicle. Our mission is primarily reconnaissance and surveillance.”

The girls were happy to learn that Maj. Heffern had a Salisbury connection. Although he’s never lived in Salisbury, his father, Dr. Robert Heffern, is principal of Koontz Elementary School, and his mother, Diane, teaches at North Rowan High School.

The couple visited the post this spring to thank the girls and to help them understand a little bit about the rigors of daily life in Iraq for their son and his fellow Marines. They were also on hand Monday night when the stockings were packed.

“It looks like Santa’s workshop in here,” Dr. Heffern said.

When the group decided on a Christmas project, Savanna Starnes had the idea of sending shoeboxes. They decided stockings would be easier to pack. Their initial goal was to complete and mail 25 stockings.

“We started out with a butter bowl of $18,” said Gina Starnes, an advisor for the group.

Advisor Tawnya Harwood took the lead in fundraising and jars were placed in eight East Rowan convenience stores, which raised more than $500.

They also sold candy bars to raise money, and community members began pitching in. As money and supplies continued coming in, they kept upping the number of stockings they planned to fill.

They ended up raising $1,400 for the project, and the butter bowl was replaced by a lock box, Gina Starnes said. They decided they could do 100 stockings.

The stockings contain pens, pencils, toothbrushes, toothpaste, hand sanitizer, puzzle books, Ramen noodles, instant coffee and Kool-aid and zip-lock bags.

Three big boxes full of extra things for the whole unit were collected, including various snacks, personal hygiene items like soap and razors, as well as notecards and playing cards.

“It’s really been a community effort,” Amy Cozart said.

They also decided to make Christmas cards for everyone in the unit. Linda Crouch served as arts and crafts coordinator.

Haley Mastranunzio, a ninth-grader at Erwin Middle School whose grandfather served in Vietnam, has enjoyed the project. “Since some of them won’t get presents, this will probably make them happy,” she said.

Savanna Starnes remembered what Dr. Heffern had told them about conditions in Iraq: “It’s very sandy and there’s like no water. They only have a tank of water once a week and they have to ration it out.”

“And they only get to take a bath once a week,” added Abby Cozart, a fourth-grader at Rockwell Elementary.

“They have a lot of windstorms so their stuff gets all sandy, said Kaitlin Crouch, an Erwin sixth-grader. “We’re sending them zip-lock bags to help them protect their things.”

There are 198 enlisted men and women, officers and contract workers associated with this unit, Amy Cozart said, and “everyone will get something.”

Maj. Heffern will help ensure that the neediest soldiers, some without families, get the stockings, but all of the soldiers will get some items, and a handmade card.

Libby Cozart’s seventh-grade Hurricane team at Erwin, under the direction of teacher Wendy Fontenot, made cards in homeroom, and some students also donated items to send.

Busby and Webb Orthodontics donated toothbrushes, while Dr. Steve Yang supplied toothpaste. Fleming Candy Company donated candy, and the Christiana Lutheran Church Men in Mission gave more than $300 for the project. Filtech donated enough lip balm for everyone in the unit.

The girls are hoping to receive some photos from the unit.

“Our philosophy, whether or not you agree with the war, is that you have to support these young men and women who are sacrificing, sometimes everything, for their country,” Amy Cozart said.

“We really admire the men and women willing to do this for us. We want to let them know that people really do appreciate it.”

They’re also appreciative of the people in the community who put their money in jars, not knowing for sure if it would be used for the stated purpose.

“They did that in good faith,” she said “We appreciate them having the faith in us.”

The junior auxiliary is planning to honor the memory of Marine Lance Corporal Nathan Elrod, who was killed by Iraqi insurgents in October, as well as the memory of other deceased Legionnaires of Post 112, by planting a flower garden at the Miller-Russell Legion building in the spring.

In the summer, the group plans to ship more donated supplies to American troops in Iraq.

The Rockwell junior auxiliary, which meets once a month, has about 20 members. The group is open to any girl under the age of 18 who is the sister, daughter, granddaughter, or great-granddaughter of any veteran, living or deceased, who served during wartime.

Contact Katie Scarvey at 704-797-4270 or