CARMEL, N.Y. – Eye drops, batteries, toilet paper; these are little things in life that most of us take for granted, say Mahopac residents Jim and Patty Rathschmidt.
But for the men and women serving overseas, like their son Luke, they’re hard-to-get luxuries.
The younger Rathschmidt, a member of the Army’s 82nd Airborne Division, was deployed from Fort Bragg in North Carolina to Iraq in 2007.
His parents started sending him little care packages, which he happily shared with his comrades. But, he still felt badly for the soldiers who had no family at home.
“It’s not like getting your own,” he told his parents one day.
Not long after that conversation, United for the Troops was born.
The Rathschmidts first sent Luke 100 self-addressed and stamped envelopes, so soldiers could send them their wish lists.
The fledgling Carmel-based nonprofit then set about gathering enough goodies to send out 200 packages to the troops that Christmas.
It wasn’t too long before the idea just “exploded,” Rathschmidt said Monday.
Help started coming from every corner of the community, from schools and churches, to businesses, the county government and individuals.
To date, United for the Troops has sent out more than 16,000 packages.
This last November, its Operation Defend the Holidays, was its biggest ever, Rathschmidt said.
More than 300 volunteers packed the gymnasium of a local middle school to pack up boxes, he said.
At $15 a box, it cost United thousands of dollars to mail its last collection.
The Shrub Oak post office even opened on a Sunday just so the care packages would go out and arrive on time.
According to UFT''s mission statement, the Rathschmidts and others involved in the organization, were painfully aware of the sacrifices that members of the military were making.
“While these men and women are in over 110 degrees heat, protecting our nation on a 24/7 basis, there is no reason why they should be without the basic amenities we enjoy back home,” it read.
One soldier’s mom wrote to the organization to tell them how thrilled her daughter and her comrade-in-arms were to get 20 boxes of much-needed stuff this month.
“They have greatly improved her and her fellow soldiers quality of life and their morale,” the mom wrote. “She told me that they are all overwhelmed by this show of love and support by people they have never met.
As a mom, she added, she “couldn’t be more grateful for all of your efforts. You are all a miracle to so many serving that don’t have people back home to send them things.”
Earlier this month, United for the Troops started collecting food and other items for Operation Cupid.
They began packing up the boxes on Monday, Jan. 23, but it’s not too late to contribute to future operations because the troops’ need for stuff never disappears.
On its “wish list” was small Valentine’s Day favorites, including cards from all ages.
Also on the list are snacks such as pretzels, granola bars and trail mix and personal care items such as baby wipes, Chapstick, shampoo and disposable razors.
Now United is collecting things for the furrier members of overseas troops, namely the K-9s that do such dangerous work as sniffing out explosives. The dogs get treats and vitamins while their handlers get human goodies, Rathschmidt said.
The next big collection is set for March.
One wonders where the Rathschmidts find the time. (Jim is retired from the bakery truck biz, while Patty still works.)
The Yonkers’ natives, who have lived in Putnam County for 25 years, have eight children, including one who just went off to college.
Luke, who has been stateside for about six years, is working and raising a young daughter.
For Jim Rathschmidt, the answer is easy; just like soldiers watch each other’s backs, the community has risen to the challenge.
In fact, he said, most of the credit goes to the many volunteers and contributors that make it all happen.
(They got such a big reaction to one recent call for volunteers that UFT had to temporarily shut down its website because so many were trying to sign up.)
UTF not only helps the soldiers, he said, it “helps the community by bringing people together. It shows kids ways to think of other people than themselves.”
For more information, call (845) 729-4239, or visit the organization’s website at http://unitedforthetroops.org .