January 9th, 2007 14:36 EST
Judyth Piazza chats with Susan Warren about Supporting Our Troops
Caring for the troops
Rockville women to receive award for patriotism
by Jacqueline Sternberg
A Jewish woman who has been quietly working out of her Rockville apartment for the past year to make life more pleasant for American troops stationed in the Middle East is about to be honored by the 40 and 8.
The group serves as the honor society of the American Legion, the largest veterans` organization in the world.
In May 2003, Susan Warren, 56, a retail worker at Esterman`s Estate Jewelers in Rockville and former prize-winning body builder, started sending care packages of snack foods, magazines, toiletries and other items to her nephew, Alex McBride, a young marine stationed in Afghanistan.
Her loving attention was not unconditional, however; she told him to share his packages with others in his platoon. It was during a visit to her nephew`s South Carolina boot camp that she learned that many soldiers who went overseas apparently had no family, or came from poor families who could not afford to send them care packages.
Something about their plight -- being so far away and living under such desperate conditions -- struck a chord.
I can`t imagine being that far from home and not getting anything -- that`s crushing to me, said Warren, who is single and has no children.
So the packages were shared, and soldiers began to write back their thanks to Warren. The thank-you notes warmed her heart, but what really impressed her was the sharing and caring. Marines are a brotherhood like no other, Warren says. They really look out for each other.
Determined to also look out for as many of them as she could, Warren began to expand her operations. She found more contacts with officers -- stationed in Afghanistan, Djibouti, Kuwait and Iraq -- to whom she could send care packages to distribute to the troops.
One such contact was Eric Gagomiros, who was working to help set up training camps in Kuwait.
I thought it was nice that someone was going out of their way to send a box to Kuwait for the troops, he said, referring to the care packages that arrived about four times a month to his camp. He added, I had no idea of the magnitude and scope of her caring.
Gagomiros alerted the American Legion about Warren`s efforts, and on Saturday, she will receive the 40 and 8`s first Americanism Award for Outstanding Patriotism.
Nowadays, Warren estimates she sends around 11-14 packages a week -- each loaded with about 15 to 20 pounds of candy, snacks, toiletries, magazines, and other items. She rotates their circulation among her contacts, numbering about 75 troops.
In May, Warren began asking her contacts to let her know of any soldiers who seemed never to receive packages from home. To these she also began to send smaller, individualized packages, sometimes including personalized notes.
Although Warren asks for nothing in return, letters of gratitude from soldiers and their family members have poured in. She saves and cherishes everything, keeping scrapbooks and file folders full of letters, and displaying the mementos, hats and T-shirts she has received all over her apartment.
Last week, she even got in the mail a full-size, formally folded American flag, as a small token of our appreciation, wrote Army 1st Sgt. Courtney Curtis in a letter. The flag had been raised by his task force (camp) stationed in Djibouti, Africa, on Memorial Day in her honor, he told her, to remember those who give of themselves to ensure that our troops deployed are not forgotten. Warren said she burst into tears at that and was a little hysterical for a while.
Warren is no longer completely alone in her volunteer efforts. Her best friend, Nancy Fishbein of Bethesda, does all the driving with her conveniently large car; neighbors in her apartment building clip and collect shopping coupons; her gym keeps a box on its floor to collect used magazines; and numerous people have given cash to help cover the shopping costs and postage.
(Warren does not want to reveal how much she has been given, or what she spends each month for items and postage, but she half-jokes that she should perhaps break into serious fund-raising work, based on her ability to recruit donors.)
But for now, she complains that her volunteerism has become a second job. As a full-time employee and serious exercise buff (Warren still makes time to pump iron regularly), she fills much of her spare time clipping coupons, shopping, packing and standing in line at stores and the post office.
She also says she is often overwhelmed by the amount of stuff and boxes that squeeze her apartment`s living space to a minimum.
But by way of explaining her drive to give, she only says, People are making sacrifices over there ... It`s the least I can do. Before, life was all about me -- being single and a body builder and all, and now this is so rewarding, is such a blessing.