Socks and baby wipes are what 1st Lt. Dennis Graziosi Jr. of Altoona and his fellow Marines really appreciated. Around this time last year, Graziosi and his battalion were on a mission in a remote part of Afghanistan, away from their Marine base. They hadn't showered since October, and they changed their socks about every other week.
"We're wearing the same thing day in and day out. There were sandstorms. We couldn't shower, and there was nowhere to wash clothes," Graziosi said.
When several hundred boxes arrived a couple of days before Christmas courtesy of Duncansville-based Smith Furniture's Operation SOS, the Marines were ecstatic.
Operation SOS care packages bring smiles to the faces of troops in Afghanistan last Christmas.
First Lt. Dennis A. Graziosi Jr. of Altoona played Santa, helping distribute Operation SOS packages to Marines in Afghanistan before last Christmas.
While most Marines receive presents from family and friends, those packages didn't arrive until a couple of weeks after Christmas. So, the Marines were touched to receive the goodies from Altoona.
"Everybody was so happy to get them. It was really like Christmas," Graziosi said. "Baby wipes - that was the No. 1 thing they wanted, so we can kind of stand each other."
Being overseas during the holidays is a unique experience, one that Graziosi said isn't all bad.
How to help
Anyone wishing to donate may drop items off at Smith Furniture in Duncansville from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. weekdays and 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturdays. For more information or a complete list of desired items, call 695-5635 or visit www.smithfurniturehof.com.
"All the guys come together. You have makeshift Christmas trees. It's kind of a cool experience," Graziosi said.
A big meal of steak and all the fixings was served to the Marines in his unit on Christmas Day.
While Christmas is a time of camaraderie with fellow Marines, it's also a time of loneliness and homesickness.
"It was cool to celebrate with the guys, but you miss home more than any other time," Graziosi said.
The packages from Operation SOS helped immensely. Not only were there goodies like beef jerky, candy and games, but the Marines enjoyed reading the cards and letters sent from Blair County.
The packages brightened the holidays, which is the goal of Gary Clare, owner of Smith Furniture and organizer of Operation SOS, which is in its ninth year.
Clare, a retired Army sergeant, started the program after talking with a customer who was shipping Christmas presents to a child serving overseas in the military. It jogged his memory.
"I was in the military, and I know what it's like to be away from home. I was always receiving packages from back home, and there were a lot of people who
didn't receive any," Clare said.
Over the years, Clare has developed a loyal group of volunteers and tremendous support from the community. Longtime volunteer Genny Catina of Duncansville helps sort items as they are donated and packs boxes, among other duties. Her two sons served in the Army for 20 years, with tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, so she understands the angst families feel when their loved ones are overseas during the holidays.
"We're very aware of what soldiers go through when they're away from home," Catina said. "We just want to help send a touch of home."
This year Operation SOS will send packages to a unit based in Johnstown - the 104th Attack Reconnaissance Battalion of the Pennsylvania National Guard. The soldiers are leaving for Afghanistan this month, and the packages should arrive before Christmas.
About 400 boxes (an Operation SOS record) will be packaged at the end of November. But before they can be packed, Operation SOS is seeking donations from the community and businesses to fill the boxes, as well as monetary donations to help pay for shipping, which usually costs $10,000.
Most coveted items are baby wipes, beef jerky, Pop Tarts, canned potato chips, candy bars, 10-ounce liquid hand sanitizer, travel size board games, hand warmers, eye drops and throat lozenges.
"First and foremost, it shows people still care about the troops," Graziosi said.