The U.S. Army’s 425th Civil Affairs Battalion may be in Iraq this holiday season, but a group of people here in Santa Barbara is making sure the soldiers and their families receive gifts and holiday cheer through the mail. Operating out of the historic Veterans Memorial Building on Cabrillo Boulevard, the 425th’s Family Readiness Group (FRG)-composed of family members, veterans, and community volunteers-has been busy packing boxes for these reserve troops to let them know that people back home are thinking about them.
“It doesn’t matter what you get, as long as you get something,” said retired Command Sergeant Major Jonathan Church, who knows how it feels to be in a war zone during the holidays. Deployed with the unit in 2004, Church remembered the special feeling he got from receiving a care package. “It means a lot. You can’t help but feel good.”
The pile of about 150 boxes being assembled in a back room of the Veterans Building are each crammed with snacks, books, and a card. Church said the U.S. Postal Service offers a flat rate for packages to overseas military troops, so they’re trying to stuff as much as the small boxes will hold. FRG has collected quite a lot of goodies to fill the boxes with, and has also stockpiled about 50 toys to send to soldiers’ children.
Getting everything organized has been no small feat, and Church works on the packages for about five hours a day at the Veterans Building. He is assisted by a number of volunteers, such as Georgiana Handy-wife of the 425th’s commander, Lieutenant Colonel Quincy Handy-and Lynn Jewett, a Montecitan who doesn’t have any family members in the military, but said she just wanted to help out. “I do not feel that I am doing any more than any other supportive spouse would do,” said Handy in an email. FRG volunteers also keep in contact with deployed soldiers’ families to make sure they’re doing okay.
The postage bill already stands at more than $1,600, and Church lauded the support FRG has received from the community as the reason they have been able to pull off the project. “A lot of people who donate are older, because they all served,” he said, pointing out that prior to the Vietnam War, all males older than 18 faced a period of compulsory military service. “The people supporting these troops are patriotic. They might not believe in the war, but they believe in American troops.” The donations mostly are handled on a walk-in basis, going across the desk of Marge Beavers, who has been the manager of the Veterans Building for the past 11 years. “Those [volunteers] are probably the biggest unsung heroes in Santa Barbara for veterans,” said Church. “They bust their tails for the troops.”
Beavers said a variety of support is offered to veterans at the Cabrillo Boulevard facility. A group of vets-even some who served in World War II and Korea-meets at the building every Wednesday morning for coffee, donuts, and conversation. “I really want Iraq and Afghanistan vets to know that this is a social place for them,” she said. “It’s good to talk to other vets and get out and socialize.” She added that in addition to social events and the holiday gift-giving program, the center hosts free counseling sessions for veterans-sponsored by the Veterans Administration office in Ventura-every Monday, Tuesday, and Thursday. “We do what we can to give them a hand,” she said.
While Cabrillo’s Veterans Memorial Building will probably serve in its current function for years to come, the reserve center on upper State Street will no longer house the Army. After the 425th returns home next year, they will occupy a new headquarters in Encino. Church, a Santa Barbara native, was saddened by the move, saying that the civil affairs unit has been part of the community since the end of World War II. He remembers interviewing Pratima Dhadwal-now on her second tour in Iraq-for a spot in the 425th when she was still in high school. The first time she went to Iraq, he was there, too, and often rode in the truck she drove. “It was incredible to see the difference [in her],” he said.
To mark the official date of the move, members of the 425th Civil Affairs Battalion who are still in the States will gather for a ceremony at the Veterans Memorial Building on April 4, 2009.
For more information about the 425th’s Family Readiness Group and its holiday gift program, contact Marge Beavers at 568-0020.