I'm really pleased at all the response I've gotten from my Any Soldier post the other day. Not only did I get a few comments here and on FB from friends who are planning to participate in the program themselves (and even a great financial donation for the boxes I sent!), but I got a handful of emails about it, as well.
A lot of folks seem to have questions, though, or be not quite sure where to start, so I thought I'd post again and give a few tips. I'm hardly an expert, but this is my sixth (I think) year sending these boxes, and I have learned a couple of things.
1. Expect to cry. Seriously. My sister said she cried all the way through reading the Any Soldier notes on the website. I didn't cry reading them this year, but I broke down in the middle of Target when I was shopping. I don't think I've been through this once without a bawling tangent or two. This shit is sad, dude.
2. Pick our your recipient(s) before you shop. A lot of the recipients on the website have specific wish lists, so it's great to have those in-hand when you go shopping.
3. Don't be afraid of those who don't have specific requests. Some of the soldiers on the site are very clear about what they want/need, but others are very vague, or don't ask for much at all. The first few times I did this, I shied away from those lists. This time, though, I picked one of them, knowing that a lot of the things I was picking up for the more detailed list I'd chosen could be duplicated and used. Once you've read several of them, you see that a lot of the things they ask for are the same.
4. Buy major brands. You'll often see that those who are specific in their requests ask for brand name items. My theory (and it is just a theory, but I think it makes sense) is that one thing the soldiers are homesick for is brand name items. They may have pale imitations available to them, in the PX or whatever, but they don't have the shiny branded packages they are used to back home. I'm not usually a big brand name shopper, but for this, I buy the major brands.
5. Set a budget. I have a serious over-shopping problem in general, and that doubles when it comes to something like this. This year, I intended to send two boxes. I came home with five boxes worth of stuff. That's typical. If I'd set a budget before I shopped, which I knew I should have done, I'd probably have spent a lot less than I did. The problem I have is once I am in the store, nearly everything I see seems like a good addition to the boxes. If you could avoid that, you'd probably be better of. Do as I say, not as I do.
6. Use the APO/FPO flat rate box. The post office has special flat rate boxes for military mail. They cost like $12 each to send, and they are regular large flat rate size (I think). They're easy as pie to use, and you can even print your shipping labels and pay online and have your postal carrier pick them up, avoiding the whole post office scene.
7. Write a note. This is actually the hardest part, for me, but I think it's important. With each box I send, I include a personal note from me to the recipient and his/her fellow soldiers. I keep politics out of it completely, as that's the only way I can feel honest and still respectful. I just say hi, wish him/her luck, and tell him/her to take care. If you have kids, I think it's great to have them write a note or color a picture--I've heard a lot of the soldiers really love that.
8. Do not expect response. I'd estimate I've received responses from about a quarter of the boxes I've sent. The letters are really nice to get, but they are not the point and the very last thing I want to do is add the the stress of any of these folks. Don't send these expecting a response.
Finally, for the curious, these are my packed up boxes for this round:
I know it looks like they're all full of just candy, but I promise that's just the top layer. They also contain: tampons, pantyliners, instant coffee mix, fitness water mix, body washes, hair spray and gel, rubberbands and headbands, face cleansers, gum, disposable razors, socks, and laundry supplies. All pretty basic stuff, right? But it's what the majority of the female soldiers asked for, and I think the most important thing is to do the best I can to provide what they request.