An exceptional care package

Megan Just

Megan Just

Navy Lt. Megan Field, now Megan Just, works on a project in her trailer at Camp Victory, Iraq, Sept. 27, 2007. Surrounding her are items from care packages her friends and family members sent. The comforter and curtains were from her mother. The large photographs are prints from a friend who is a professional photographer. The flower paintings are by her grandmother. Even the mouse pad and the novel were products of care packages from her brother and best friend. (U.S. Air Force courtesy photo)

Navy Lt. Megan Field, now Megan Just, works on a project in her trailer at Camp Victory, Iraq, Sept. 27, 2007. Surrounding her are items from care packages her friends and family members sent. The comforter and curtains were from her mother. The large photographs are prints from a friend who is a professional photographer. The flower paintings are by her grandmother. Even the mouse pad and the novel were products of care packages from her brother and best friend. (U.S. Air Force courtesy photo)

MARCH AIR RESERVE BASE, CALIF. -- One of my most vivid memories of my deployment to Iraq is the adrenaline rush of receiving care packages. The arrival of a care package could instantly turn a bad day into a euphoric one. Receiving care packages was so important to me that I often wrote about them in my diary.

At the beginning of the deployment I wrote, "I received Eric's (my boyfriend) package today and I've been waiting all night to open it. I've been so looking forward to it that I don't want the anticipation to be over."

The next day, after opening his package, I wrote, "Eric's box was great. He sent my favorite fig sugarless cookies (which I am finishing as I write), a bunch of Cliff Bars and a variety of dried fruit. He also sent two issues of 'National Geographic' and 'Climbing.'"

In that care package, Eric had also enclosed a small book he made that contained his favorite quotes, photos of us together and a long letter. My reaction to the book tugged at my heartstrings enough to nauseate you, so I'll pass on sharing that section of my diary here, but I can assure you, the book meant a lot more than the fig cookies and it is still a treasured item today.

Toward the end of deployment, even as the recipient of an estimated 50 care packages, I was still raving about them. "I love getting care packages," I wrote. "It is hands-on proof that somebody loves me. Opening them is like being a kid on Christmas morning. Each package contains a surprise and what is inside is additionally valuable because the contents are things that I can't procure myself."

While all care packages are great to receive, I did notice a difference in the emotional impact of a run-of-the-mill care package versus one where the sender put a lot of thought into selecting the contents and packaging them in a creative manner.

A run-of-the-mill care package contains generic items and things servicemembers can easily buy themselves at the Exchange on base or order online. A run-of-the-mill care package is one that might as well have been packed by one of the many web-based care package companies. See, the preparation of an exceptional care package cannot be outsourced. The preparation and thought that goes into a care package is half of its value and the service- member can perceive this extra effort.

Now, I must confess that buried in my past is a string of these generic care packages. Back then, I was dating a servicemember who was deployed to Iraq and although I am a procrastinator by nature, I was determined to send him care packages at regular intervals and I was determined to do it in an efficient manner.

From the post office, I gathered an armload of identical Priority Mail boxes and customs forms. At Costco, I stocked up on a variety of jumbo packs of single-serve snack items like trail mix, crackers, beef jerky and sunflower seeds. Once a month, like clockwork, I tossed a handful of each type of snack item into a Priority Mail box and, voila! I had a care package! I think I added a note to each box before taping it up, but I couldn't be sure. (FYI: Not including a note -- even if it's just a sentence -- is the cardinal sin of care package preparation.)

I sent this string of care packages before I'd been deployed myself. The care packages I send to friends now are different. They are smaller, for one, and I think about details like picking a nice card for my note so the servicemember can use it to decorate their trailer.  I  sent a small box of gourmet chocolates to a friend around Valentine's Day one year and now, when I bake batches of cookies to send, I pay close attention to the packaging so the cookies don't turn into a plastic bag of crumbs by the time they arrive overseas.

While I'm on the topic of baked goods, it's important to mention that one of the greatest joys of a care package is being able to share homemade treats with the members of your unit and your trailermate. Keep this in mind if you send baked goods to servicemembers and send enough so the servicemember can share without jeopardizing his or her own stash of treats. Help them out by packing a large container for sharing and a smaller container for hoarding.

In some cases, however, the servicemember may be watching his or her weight and you shouldn't send them a double batch of Aunt Hermonie's Triple-Fudge Buttery Delights. Depending on the servicemember's level of self control, you might consider sending a single serving of the baked good: enough so they can enjoy the special treat, but not enough to throw their diet off course.

What I found especially touching as a deployed servicemember was when I would receive a care package from someone unexpected, like the parents of a close friend, a distant cousin or a co-worker who I didn't know very well. Recently, a friend of mine sent a care package of gag gifts to the goofy husband of one of our mutual friends who is deployed on a Navy ship.

Family members back home can facilitate this process by making a list of the types of things the servicemember would like to receive and circulating the list with the servicemember's mailing address. Also include an approximate date range -- so you don't violate operations security -- so senders can spread packages through the entirety of the deployment.

If you have the time and desire, savor the process of preparing the care package. While you're packing, think about the servicemember who is absent. Tuck a family photo into the spine of a book. Wrap a brightly colored ribbon around a fancy chocolate bar. Have the kids make crafts. Go to an imports store and pick up a food item that you enjoyed together during your honeymoon in Paris. Make a good, old fashioned mix CD. Clean a few seashells from your summer vacation and nestle them inside the package of undershirts your servicemember requested. In the end, you're not shipping goods. You're showing that you care.

Wanted: your suggestions
Help deployed reservists' friends and family send exceptional care packages by sharing your own care package tips and tricks.

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