American troops began fighting in Afghanistan in October 2001.
After 13 years, and as the number of troops in Afghanistan continue to draw down, some Americans may have lost focus on the fact that thousands of U.S. troops are still under fire overseas. But the commitment shown by United Methodist church members in Oviedo, Florida to support the troops has never wavered.
Tray…after tray…of cookies. Box… after box…of food and hygiene products…
Jackie Henry: "It blows me away what these men and woman go through every day."
…addressed to places 7,000 miles away with names like Bagram and Kandahar…
Jackie Henry, First United Methodist Church of Oviedo: "It really brings happiness to my heart to know that I'm doing something to give back."
Liz Whitley, First United Methodist Church of Oviedo: "When a soldier gets a box he will take it in the community room and it will get shared with everybody in his unit."
Card… after card… of thanks.
(Children read thank you cards)
The Military Support Team of First United Methodist Church in Oviedo, Florida is sending out another massive shipment of care packages to American troops in Afghanistan - an organized commitment that's gone on for seven years now. This shipment is timed for the Fourth of July. Liz Whitley's son served in Afghanistan.
Liz Whitley: "I'm so proud of our country. I'm proud of our servicemen. And women."
Whitley and team members have visited V.A. hospitals. They've fed and danced with veterans who are able, and ministered to those who aren't. Some support team members make adaptive clothes for military amputees.
(Sewing machine sound)
And, this year - once again - they will send 1500 camouflage Christmas stockings. At First United Methodist of Oviedo, it's already Christmas in July.
Liz Whitley: "What we do is we fill 'em with candy and homemade cookies."
Liz Whitley first organized the support team in 2007. Forty church members are on the team, and more donate. They've been sending practical supplies and treats for so long that this church has become known to troops in Afghanistan. This shipment could touch more than 1,000 soldiers.
Whitley has seen them deploy… and come home.
Liz Whitley: "To see the children with their signs, and to see them run up to their mom and dad…"
It's not just patriotism. It's personal. Support team members know local families whose sons and fathers have died.
On Memorial Day, the support team installed a display of markers for every Florida soldier killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. More than 400.
Pat Stamm arrives in between services, and unloads 30 dozen cookies. She's been baking for eight hours. It's not the first time.
Pat Stamm: "My uncles were United States Marine Corps for first landing on Guadalcanal. Neither came home in one piece. And I have also lost my students in the World Trade Center. And I believe in supporting the troops that are keeping us free."
(Children read more thank-you cards)
A first-time visitor at church this Sunday has been on the receiving end of support efforts. Brian Schulze just returned from a second deployment in Afghanistan, and is introduced to the Oviedo congregation.
(Applause in church)
Sgt. Brian Schulze, U.S. Army: "With how long we've been in this conflict, ya kinda wonder if people are still paying attention to Americans over there sacrificing themselves. It means a lot. It's really good to know that people still recognize that fact."
Sargent Schulz, husband, father of two, has come to say thank you, back to supporters who were strangers until today.
Shirleen Harms, First United Methodist Church of Oviedo: "I'm grateful that I have the opportunity to serve them back for what they do for us."
(Child reads thank you note)
In addition to the care packages sent by the church, Liz Whitley also sends a very personal item to soldiers overseas. She cuts stars out of retired U.S. flags and sends them to Afghanistan soldiers, asking them to pass the stars out to others in their units. She includes a note, asking the troops keep the stars in their pockets as they go about their duties, to be reminded that they are appreciated and prayed for back home. From messages she has received back from Afghanistan, she knows that many soldiers are doing exactly that.
Learn more about the Military Support Team at First United Methodist Church of Oviedo, FL.
This story was first posted on July 3, 2014.