Every member of America’s military should be able to provide a nice holiday for his or her family.
That’s what members of the Order of the Purple Heart and other military support groups believe, and they demonstrated their belief Sunday with loads of turkeys, hams, side dishes, toys and more destined for service members of all branches at Dobbins Air Reserve Base.
Members of Alpharetta-based Purple Heart Chapter 576; the Lonely Hearts Club, a local charity dedicated to helping the Dobbins community; and two organizations for Dobbins spouses, the Dobbins Key Spouses and Dobbins ARB Military Spouse Group, joined together to make sure the troops have their Christmases cared for, their Hanukkahs handled and their Kwanzas coordinated.
This year, the groups brought in 200 baskets of goodies for troops who need a little boost this Christmas, plus over 700 turkeys.
As volunteers were bringing basket after basket into the Dobbins Consolidated Club on base Sunday morning, Doug Middleton, a retired Army colonel and past national senior vice commander of the Purple Hearts, told the MDJ the program began about eight years ago when they were looking for a new service project. They wanted to do something to benefit the junior enlisted at Dobbins and their young families.
“We knew some of them would be deployed, their wives would be home alone and it would be kind of an unhappy time of year, and we thought we could help out,” he said. “Obviously, all of us Purple Heart guys were in the service ourselves. The added thing for us is we all got wounded in combat, but we’ve all been there. We’ve been away from our families for the holidays. We’ve been overseas or deployed, and we know what they go through, we know how they felt. They wonder, while we’re over here doing our thing, does anybody care about what’s happening back at home?”
That first year, the group brought in about 50 baskets, and they have been growing ever since.
About five years ago, the Lonely Hearts Club joined on. That group provides year-round financial help, scholarships and more to family members of Dobbins troops.
At the holiday event, they collected toys and games for service members to give their children. Piece by piece, volunteers erected piles of toys with something for any kid: there were “Star Wars” toys, Disney princesses, card games, model aircraft, books, board games, sports equipment and more.
All the aid groups like the Purple Hearts and Lonely Hearts Club provides is given anonymously, including the annual holiday event, said Lonely Hearts Club President Heather Whitehead.
“Even though we have helped hundreds of families, I couldn’t tell you who they are, because that’s the way the military does things,” she said.
Whitehead said after all the baskets were packed, they would be distributed to commanders from each of the branches, who would discreetly give them out to those they feel could use them.
“The thing about military families is they are very proud, they will never ask for help,’ Whitehead said. “They will sleep in their cars, they will eat peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, they will not ask for help. So we’re going to give them help whether they like it or not.”
Whitehead said starting pay for service members is fine for those who live on base and eat all their meals at the cafeteria, but for young people looking to start families, it can be a little rough.
“If you’re fortunate enough to find the love of your life when you’re in your early twenties and you get married and now you have a couple kids, you’re trying to get by on that pay scale, it’s very, very hard to get by, and that’s why we’re here to help,” she said. “We want these young folks to stay in the military.”
Whitehead said although she does not know who will be helped by her group’s good deeds, she sometimes hears back from past beneficiaries.
“I’ll go to some military events, military balls, stuff like that, and people will kind of find out who I am, and they’ll kind of pull me aside and say ‘I just wanted to let you know I was one of the ones who got a basket last year,’ they’ll whisper it to me, ‘I just wanted to let you know how much that helped,’” she said.
Middleton said he also hears through the grapevine from people who have benefitted from the program.
“One of our guys was out talking with one of the grocery stores about buying in bulk, trying to get a good price on it, and he was wearing his Purple Heart gear,” Middleton said. “A lady came up to him and said ‘Are you a Purple Heart member … Do you have anything to do with the holiday baskets?’ He said yes. She said ‘Well, I received one of those, and you don’t know how much that meant to me.’ That story alone has been sufficient feedback for us to know we’re making a difference.”
Among those helping to load up baskets was Brig. Gen. Richard Kemble, Commander of the 94th Airlift Wing at Dobbins. Kemble told the MDJ the volunteers’ work makes a real difference for young military families at the holidays.
“This time of year, what they do for all of mission partners, to include our airmen, our soldiers, our sailors, our Marines, this means the world for them,” he said. “For many, it tips the scales for them in the right direction so they actually get to have the best holiday ever. We really appreciate what they do for us.”