The hot spots where Americans have been deployed to douse post — Cold War fires may be exotic, but they also are far from home. Very far. For the soldiers and sailors, airmen and Marines who find themselves on the front lines in locales halfway across the globe, being away from their loved ones and removed from the routines of the lives they left behind are voids that are difficult to fill. Keeping in touch with family and friends, any veteran who has been overseas knows, is critical to maintaining morale.
Letters and packages — and in the age of the ubiquitous Windows, e-mails — are a lifeline to troops. A letter recounting even the most trivial of occurrences can bring relief and comfort.
Although he was writing about Vietnam, where he served as a Marine platoon commander in 1969, William Broyles Jr. observed a universal truth in his foreword to Dear America: Letters Home from Vietnam: "With the possible exception of his rifle, nothing was more important to an American in Vietnam than his mail."
"I remember once, after an operation deep in the mountains, my platoon returned exhausted and numb, that unfocused stare in our eyes," Broyles wrote, " I sat down on the ground, my fatigues soaked and filthy, and began responding to a letter asking for suggestions on who should get what Christmas presents. But instead of resenting such an incongruous task, I welcomed it. The more mundane the details, the more absorbed in them I could become...At times [my parents] would apologize for boring me with such ' little things,' but it was the little things that kept all of us planted on the ground. We were caught up in war, a very big thing, and only the little things made sense."
Understanding this with an intimacy born of 31 years in the Army, Mike Plummer, a 1960 graduate of West Point who served two tours in Vietnam, decided to help make a difference.
What Can We Do?
During his military career, Colonel Plummer got to see a lot of the world. He came to realize " what a marvelous, marvelous country we have, and how lucky and blessed we are to be Americans."
When the 10th Mountain Division, which had been reactivated and based at Fort Drum out of Watertown, New York, was deployed to South Florida in 1992 in the wake of Hurricane Andrew, community leaders approached the recently retired colonel with a two-pronged question: What can we do to show support for these young men and women? What can we do to take care of their families while they are gone?
Mike Plummer told them: Anything you do should be focused at the platoon level. That is the "point of the bayonet" where things get done by the youngest men and women in the service. " I thought that if the community could somehow show their appreciation and pride to these soldiers, they would feel better about what they were doing and be less concerned about being away from their family and friends," Mike explained during a telephone interview from his home/office in Watertown.
An idea was conceived, then fertilized, then hatched: For any future deployments from Fort Drum, let's get companies and schools, civic associations and fraternal organizations, to 'adopt' a platoon. How does the program work? Mike explained:
The Association of the U. S. Army — he is a member of its North Country, New York chapter — will link up potential sponsors with platoons scheduled for deployment overseas.
The sponsoring organization will be provided with personal information about the members of 'their' platoon, which can range from 10 to 40 or so men and women, depending on function.
With this information in hand, the sponsor can have its members send out birthday cards, videotapes, books, magazines, as well as personal letters and care packages. Handi-wipes, Mike said, are always a particularly big hit.
In cases of an unscheduled deployment, once a post office is set up, AUSA will then link a sponsor with a platoon. (This process took four months with Operation Enduring Freedom, the current effort in Afghanistan.)
While a platoon is overseas, the sponsor might host a holiday party for the families of the troops. One sponsor, the Upstate Federal Credit Union, even put photographs of the troops up on one of the walls at it headquarters as inspiration for its employees. When a platoon returns to its home base — in this case, Fort Drum — members will visit the school or church or other sponsor, which more often than not will throw a welcome back party.
In the ten years since Adopt-a-Platoon was formally founded, every unit from Fort Drum that has been sent elsewhere has had a sponsor. That computes to 30,000 soldiers - approximately 1,000 platoons — who have been thanked by the North Country community, Mike said with obvious pride.
When troops from Drum get to their next duty station, they bring the idea of Adopt-a-Platoon with them. And Mike Plummer's AUSA chapter freely dispenses the knowledge and know-how it has gleaned over the past decade to help spread the program.
"We've linked up other AUSA chapters across the country," Mike said. " We've involved the VFW and the YMCA through their auxiliaries. We just received a $5,000 grant from Paul Newman's foundation to help us assist other communities that want to adopt a platoon.
"Our hope is that these little 'centers of excellence' will sprout not only at Army bases, but at Navy, Air Force, and Marine facilities nationwide." The only units they've not had much success with — yet, Mike said — has been Reserve components.
Mike is committed to extending and expanding this franchise.
"What we're telling young soldiers is: We care. We appreciate your service." Mike said. The troops, in turn, are appreciative. One soldier in Bosnia sent a letter to his sponsor:
"I know the mission is important, but after awhile it is easy to feel what you are doing isn' t appreciated," he wrote. " Your packages of magazines, videos, and goodies make the difference for all of us in the platoon. We know someone back home cares.
You were a stranger, now you are a part of our family. What we do now has more meaning because it is important to you and America. God bless America and all the people like you that make it America."
And God bless Mike Plummer.