Marine Sgt. Maj. Robert Breeden at Camp Leatherneck in Afghanistan June 12, 2009. Back at Camp Lejeune, N.C., his wife, Barbara, organized a drive for donations to send the Marines on deployment.
Marine Sgt. Maj. Robert Breeden at Camp Leatherneck in Afghanistan June 12, 2009. Back at Camp Lejeune, N.C., his wife, Barbara, organized a drive for donations to send the Marines on deployment. David Gilkey/NPR
For Marines serving in Afghanistan, mail call can be a little bit like Christmas in July. A package from home can supply everything from basic needs to small luxuries.
One lance corporal summed it up for an NPR producer a couple of weeks ago, cheerfully listing some of the goodies as he unpacked them: "Frito Lay chips, Smart Balance peanut butter, Nutella spread — mmm. Gold Bond foot powder — that's gold, baby! Wipes, cookies and beef jerky — all the essentials."
Those packages are put together by friends and family back in the United States, doing what they can to send their Marines what they need most.
At a Piggly Wiggly grocery store in North Carolina, customers have been donating goods for Marines deployed with the 2nd Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment out of nearby Camp Lejeune.
Assistant Manager Rosa Hamilton says some of the items catch shoppers off guard. "They were like, 'Clothes pins, huh? I never would have thought about that.' And we're like, 'Well, they don't have anywhere to hang their clothes,' " she says.
As she rummages through boxes of donations in a room at the back of the store, Hamilton says the gifts range from baby wipes and hand sanitizer to batteries.
Barbara Breeden organized the drive for donations. She is the wife of Sgt. Maj. Robert Breeden, the battalion's senior enlisted man. She says she knew it was going to be rough in Afghanistan, so the night before the unit left, she asked the men what they thought they might need there.
This is the 11th deployment for the Breedens, but Barbara says it has been different from the past few to Iraq, where Marines operated out of hotels or Saddam Hussein's former palaces.
"A lot of people think that Afghanistan is like Iraq right now, and it's not. They're two totally different things. Iraq is more set up with everything that the guys need," she says. "Afghanistan — they went in with nothing."
Breeden watches the supplies being loaded into the back of her SUV. She'll take them home to sort, box and send.
When her husband told her that the men were doing laundry inside boxes lined with trash bags, she sent vegetable scrubbers to scour shirts and pants. Then she shipped her husband a huge box filled with socks. "He e-mailed me and said, 'Oh, my feet love you,' " she says.
He sends e-mail messages about other things, too.
"They're out there doing their truckin' thing — looking for 'wabbits' as they call it," she says, recalling a story her husband recently related. "And up walks this calf, out of nowhere. This little cow comes up, and he's rubbing on everybody, and following them around and mooing at them, like a dog. So they don't think nothing of it, and they start to leave to go on patrol, and they're on patrol and there's this calf, this calf is following them."
"So they named him 'Burger,' " she says – which means the Marines have either a mascot or a meal. Her husband has already joked that he'll eventually need a care package full of hamburger buns and ketchup.
Catherine Welch reports for member station WHQR in Wilmington, N.C.