Lots of programs aimed at helping U.S. troops overseas feel connected to home include sending homemade cards with personal messages of support.
A Gig Harbor woman and her volunteer group have turned that idea on its head with an effort that lets soldiers send their own cards home to remember those birthdays and other special moments that they miss while they’re away.
Dianna Putnam spent a lifetime around the military, first as a child in a military family and later as a career officer herself. Mostly retired now from her own medical-transcription business, she devotes her time directing “Totally 4 Troops,” a nationwide volunteer effort that sends handmade greeting cards overseas.
The idea for “T4T,” as its known, was born in March 2004 while Putnam’s husband was working as a civilian contractor in Kuwait.
“He had a friend and co-worker whose aunt owned a craft shop in Miami,” said Putnam, 61. “Every so often she’d have card-making classes in her shop, and she’d ask the ladies if maybe they’d make extra cards, too, which she’d end up boxing up at some point and sending to her nephew.
“Once the cards got to Kuwait, they’d be distributed to the troops, who would write their own messages in them and send them back home.”
Putnam coincidentally had begun taking card-making classes about that time at the scrapbooking store in Gig Harbor.
“My husband called me (from Kuwait) and said that since I was taking these classes, maybe some of these gals there would want to make up a few extra cards and make them available to the troops as well,” she said.
“Since we’re close to a military installation here, I wanted to see if we could identify some local units that would be interested in receiving cards instead of just putting them out on a table somewhere.”
No ‘card stores’ for soldiers
Putnam said it was difficult at first, due to security concerns, to identify specific units that had deployed from Ft. Lewis. But then she saw a newspaper story about a woman in DuPont who had gathered a group of friends to make care packages for soldiers deployed to Iraq.
“Her husband was a dentist and she was still fairly well connected with the military because so many of his patients were military or military families in DuPont,” Putnam said. “I called her and told her about my idea. She thought it was spectacular.”
Putnam’s contact in DuPont was able to hook her up with some locally deployed units, and their commanders approved the idea.
“They were thrilled because there were no card stores and no way for a soldier to find a birthday card for his son or an anniversary card for his wife,” Putnam said.
So Putnam took the idea back to her card-making group at Toadilly Scrappin’ and her cohorts immediately set about cranking out the first 300 cards.
Since then, T4T has shipped nearly 85,000 handmade cards to U.S. troops serving in Kuwait, Iraq and Afghanistan.
In December 2009, the organization received national recognition when MSNBC aired a segment about its work as part of a 12-day holiday “Making a Difference” series.
“Right now we’re only supporting three units because, of course, a lot of units we used to supply are no longer there,” Putnam said. “At the peak, I’d say we were supplying cards to 15 or 20 units from small-sized companies to almost brigade size.”
Putnam said she had expected to ship about 600 cards last week. However, a new military “client” surfaced unexpectedly and has pushed that number to nearly 10,000.
“(The troops) haven’t gone yet, so I can’t say much about it,” she said.
Little Piece of Dad or Mom
Many soldiers have emailed T4T to say they appreciate the cards.
“Some of them just send our cards back, thanking us for making the cards available,” she said.
One of the cards sent back was bittersweet. The grandmother of a soldier killed in action returned it from his personal effects to let Putnam know about her grandson’s death and to thank her for the group’s efforts.
Long-term, Putnam said the plan is to have T4T branch into two other card-making projects.
One involves a program for elementary school-age military dependents. Planning is under way to start card-making as part of an after-school crafts program under the supervision of a behavioral counselor at Madigan Army Hospital.
The other initiative is geared toward supporting the “Wounded Warrior” program--the Army’s massive physical and psychological rehabilitation initiative for veterans.
“If they would like to do occupational therapy, we’ll work with the VA to develop a card-making program, or we’ll just provide cards to them so the veterans can send them to their families,” Putnam said. “This would be at the VA hospitals at American Lake and in Seattle.”
Putnam said she eventually would like to see other VA facilities around the country embrace the card-making program.
DuPont resident Lynn Pistacchio, who works closely with Putnam and oversees a group of volunteer card-makers at St. John Bosco Catholic Church in Lakewood, said she has met some of the troops’ children.
“We try to make the cards kid-friendly and not necessarily the cards we would like--maybe something like 'Lightning McQueen' or Disney, or what have you.
“Just having that little piece of their dad or mom in their backpack--or having it to show grandma--definitely impacts these kids. They love it.”
For more information about Totally 4 Troops, contact the organization at email@example.com.