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Friday, Jul 25, 2014
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Altman: Though troops are withdrawing, soldiers still need support

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The email from the Combat Stress Control Clinic at Forward Operating Base Ghazni arrived in Wesley Chapel just before 7 Friday morning.

It was blunt and urgent.

“We are currently at the front lines of fighting in Afghanistan, our soldiers are being attacked every single day, and two weeks ago, the FOB itself was penetrated by a 3,000lb bomb and a vicious firefight ensued within the FOB, killing 27 Taliban, 13 coalition forces and inuring another 70.”

The base, run by the Polish military and home to about 1,000 U.S. troops, has almost no Morale, Wellness and Recreation support, wrote the officer, and there is no base exchange.

“We can’t even buy toiletries on the FOB,” he wrote. “Many of the soldiers feel extremely cut-off from their families and the possibility of dying here is a real one.”

So he was appealing to Support the Troops Inc., because for nearly a decade, the organization created by Bob Williams, a Navy veteran who later opened up a business selling sifters and screens to commercial bakeries, has sent about 600 tons of goods to troops like those at FOB Ghazni.

But the organization’s ability to meet the demand is starting to fade, says Mark Van Trees, Support The Troops director.

The bottom line, says Van Trees, is the bottom line.

The boxes full of crackers and cookies and chips and candy and coffee and toothbrushes and bedding and all other manner of sweet treats, over-the-counter medications and toiletries are donated. But it costs money, lots of money, to mail the 50-pound boxes to the front lines. And this year, donations have fallen off to about a third of what they were just two years ago, when the organization raised $286,000.

“People think the war is over and everyone is home,” he says. “But as this email shows, that’s not the case.”

While it’s true that the end of the Iraq war and the ongoing drawdown of U.S. troops in Afghanistan, leading to what President Barack Obama has said will be at least a nearly complete withdrawal by the end of next year means fewer troops in combat zones.

But there are still more than 30,000 in Afghanistan, says Van Trees, and many tens of thousands more in places like Korea, Okinawa and Europe, plus special operations forces spread out in as many as 90 countries around the globe at any given time.

“There is still a need,” says Van Trees. “There are still troops in crappy places that can’t get this stuff.”

Van Trees took over operations of Support the Troops in January 2012. That’s when Williams, now 67, was hit in the head by a pole out behind the warehouse, in the petting zoo he built for his grandchildren.

“He suffered traumatic brain injury,” says Van Trees, sitting behind the desk in a room filled with Williams’ military memorabilia, an impressive collection that includes thousands of challenge coins, plaques, pictures and dozens of deactivated explosive shells of all kinds.

Williams was so severely injured that he spent time at the James A. Haley Veterans’ Hospital. He is now living at the Baldomero Lopez State Veterans Nursing Home in Land ‘O Lakes, which is named for Tampa’s first Medal of Honor recipient, who died falling on a hand grenade during the 1950 landing at Inchon during the Korean War.

Despite the dramatic slowdown in donations for mailings, the trucks full of goods continue to pour into the Sifter Parts and Service warehouse off State Road 54, where Williams’ sons still run the sifting business. Van Trees says the charity is shipping downrange, and even more so to bases around the country, in the latter case, thanks to DHL, which is doing it for free.

Van Trees also gives a huge shout out to Walmart, for storing the overflow of donated goods he cannot, for providing volunteers who help pack the boxes, for donating $10 per hour the volunteers work and for a massive 9/11 anniversary logistic operation.

The way things are going though, getting packages to places like FOB Ghazni is getting harder and harder.

For more information, or to contribute, go to ourtroopsonline.com, or contact Van Trees at mark@ourtroopsonline.com.

****

The attack on Forward Operating Base Ghazni is a reminder that Afghanistan remains a very dangerous place.

Among those who have the most high-risk jobs are the Navy explosives ordinance disposal techs, who make sure the way is clear of improvised explosive devices in a place where those are the number one danger faced by troops.

During my time with 7th Special Forces Group in Kandahar, the Navy EOD was the first guy out of the truck and would lead the rest of the team, metal detector in hand, toward whereever they were headed. If anything bad were buried, he’d likely have been the first one to find it.

I bring this all up because I was talking to Ken Falke, a retired Navy master chief and EOD who spent a good deal of time working with the special operations forces on developing way of integrating Navy EODs into Navy SEAL and Army special forces teams, like the one I was with.

Now Falke has a new mission.

On Sept. 6, he and his wife Julia opened the Boulder Creek Retreat on 37 acres of land they donated in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, 60 miles outside of Washington, D.C.. The retreat is part of their EOD Warrior charity and serves combat wounded military and their families while they go through the long recovery and rehabilitation process from severe physical wounds and mental trauma.

Falke says that there is room for 24 at any given time and people stay for between two days and two weeks.

The registration process is like any hotel, he says, but after people sign up on line, they then receive a package to fill out to ensure they meet the organizations’ criteria of being an active duty military family undergoing combat stress, or a veteran undergoing combat stress who was honorably discharged.

Gold Star families are also welcome, says Falke.

The retreat offers fishing, archery, hiking and other outdoor activities in a rural Bluemont, Va., near the Shenandoah River.

Falke says that the retreat is already booked up through December, but that he anticipates families coming from Tampa, with its strong military presence.

For more information, go to bouldercrestretreat.org.

****

For the first time in a long time, there were no casualties reported last week by the Pentagon.

But there was one combat death that came in after deadline on Sept. 6.

Staff Sgt. Todd J. Lobraico Jr., 22, of New Fairfield, Conn., died Sept. 5, 2013, from wounds sustained when enemy forces attacked his unit with small arms fire near Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan. He was assigned to the 105th Security Forces Squadron at Stewart Air National Guard Base, N.Y.

There have now been 2,257 U.S. troop deaths in support of Operation Enduring Freedom, the nation’s longest war.

haltman@tampatrib.com

(813) 259-7629

@haltman

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