The Strength Behind the Strong website. Proudly supporting our friends and family in the U.S. military, including Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps and Coast Guard.

WHY WE CARE SO MUCH ABOUT OUR TROOPS (AKA OUR FIRST POST)

The Strength Behind The Strong was founded by Christine Hofmann-Bourque, who is proud to have a husband in the Army, three brothers in the Navy and Army, and a sister-in-law in the Army. Christine is also a professional journalist. Read our first post to find out why this website is so close to her heart. More >>

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Tuesday
Nov152011

It’s Your Duty: Filling out customs forms for military care packages

Almost all military care packages that are sent overseas have one thing in common: They require a customs form, or more officially a Customs Declaration and Dispatch Note (2976-A). You can pick the forms up at your local post office; you’ll need to fill out one for every package you send. The biggest challenge is figuring out where to put the various pieces of a military address; ask the postal clerk if you’re not sure. Here is a sample form that highlights the sections you should fill out (click the image to enlarge):

A few more things to keep in mind:

  1. Don’t tape the customs form to your package. Simply hand it to the postal clerk with your package. The clerk will check it and stamp it before sliding it into a plastic sleeve that sticks to your package.
  2. Don’t write in the destination country. It will cause delivery problems.
  3. The customs form is not a substitute for your package’s mailing address. Your package should be properly addressed with the sender’s and recipient’s information, just as if it were going to California or Maryland instead of Afghanistan. 
  4. In the contents section, you don’t have to list every single thing in a package. If you’re sending two boxes of Oreos, three boxes of RingDings, and four dozen homemade chocolate chip cookies, simply enter “cookies.” Likewise, if you’re sending playing cards, dice, a Frisbee, and a board game, simply write “toys” or “games.”  

 

Sunday
Nov132011

Operation Cookie Overload Update: Our best tips and tricks for baking and sending cookie-filled care packages

That delicious aroma? It’s the clouds of sugar and spices and all things nice that are being whisked and beaten and baked for Operation Cookie Overload, which is our project to bring a little bit of the holidays to some Marines in Afghanistan. Marguerite from California already had her oven cranked up yesterday, whipping up homemade gingerbread cookies, below left, and her own special recipe of Crispy Salty Oatmeal Sandwich Cookies with Chocolate and Peanut Butter Centers, below right. Yum!

Operation Cookie Overload is underway!

We have more than 40 people so far signed up for Operation Cookie Overload to send packages of edible holiday goodies to Afghanistan over the next 27 days. (The holiday deadlines for Priority Mail packages is December 10th.) In the meantime, we’ve gotten a number of questions about cookies and military care packages. So we’ll turn off our mixer for a few minutes to tackle them.

“What homemade cookies ship best?”

  • Bar cookies, brownies, and drop cookies. I tend to stick with classic, all-American recipes: The Toll House Chocolate Chip Cookie recipe off the bag of the Nestle chocolate chips, the Quaker’s Best Oatmeal Cookies recipe on the lid of a Quaker Oats container, and the Peanut Butter Blossoms recipe on the back of a Hershey’s Kisses candy bag. (Have you seen our trick for making Peanut Butter Blossoms cookies even better for sending in a military care package? Instead of inserting the candies right-side up, insert them upside-down. Voila! Now the cookies are easy to stack, pack, and ship.) The original peanut butter Hershey's Kiss cookies, left, are delicious but impossible to stack in military care packages. Our secret? Flip the Kisses upside-down, right. They're still tasty, just easier to pack.
  • Don’t send anything that needs to be refrigerated. And don’t send delicate cookies; they’ll likely crumble and break during their long journey overseas.
  • Pack the icing. Iced cookies and brownies are difficult to stack and pack. If you really want to include a sweet topping for your treats, tuck a container of store-bought icing in your package and let the recipient frost the treats themselves.
  • Go ahead and send chocolate. While it’s too hot most of the year to send chocolate because it melts easily — and makes quite a mess — it’s cool enough at the winter holidays to safely send chocolate cookies and candies to Afghanistan.
  • Not sure if something will last? Here’s our simple test. If you would sit a cookie on your counter at home and eat it two weeks later, it’s a good cookie to send. If you wouldn’t, pick a different cookie.

“Can I send homemade candy like peanut brittle?

  • Absolutely. Just follow the same guidelines as above.

“Is it OK to send store-bought treats?

  • Yes, yes, yes! In fact, they’ll stay fresh longer than the homemade items, which is a bonus.

“What is the best shipment method to get my cookie package there on time? I would like to make homemade things but I want to make sure that it will still be good by the time they get it.

  • We send almost all of our packages using Priority Mail from the U.S. Postal Service. And to be sure we are getting the best postage deal, we run the numbers to figure out whether Flat Rate Priority Mail or zone-based Priority Mail is the best option. (You can do your own calculations at home; go to the Postage Price Calculator from the US Postal Service.) Our guess? For heavy packages filled with lots of cookies, Flat Rate Priority Mail is going to be your best bet. A Large Priority Mail Flat Rate box normally costs $14.95 to ship, but when you’re mailing it to an APO/FPO military address, it will only cost $12.95 no matter how much it weighs. A Priority Mail Medium Flat Rate box will cost $10.95 to ship. Remember, you must pack items in a Flat Rate box from the Postal Service in order to get the flat rate; pick up boxes for free at your local post office.

“How long does it take for a package to arrive in Afghanistan?” 

  • We’ve had some of our Priority Mail packages arrive in Iraq and Afghanistan in as little as five days. That said, it takes longer to deliver to remote locations. And if a unit is out on a mission, it may be days or weeks before they return to a place where they can get their mail. 

“How should I pack my cookies?”

  • Use plastic zip-top baggies. I put all my cookies in plastic baggies, squeezing out as much air as possible. The baggies also help keep out the dust and dirt.
  • Use a vacuum sealer, which keeps cookies very fresh, but tends to squish them a bit. My brother Matthew taught me that trick. He used a vacuum sealer to pack homemade bread (yes, bread!) for his wife, Corrie, during her deployment to Afghanistan — and she reports that the bread showed up fresh and mold-free.
  • Choose edible packing materials. Instead of stuffing tissue paper or foam peanuts into a box to fill the empty spaces, I use individually wrapped hard candies. That way the person on the other end can eat the packing material rather than having to throw it out. Sweet! 
  • Recycle Pringles potato chip containers. Melisse, a military spouse from applebutterantics.blogspot.com, gave us this great suggestion: “I have found it works better using Pringles tubes! You can stack the cookies ... and also keep them from being crushed as the box is thrown around. I also put some cling wrap over the top before I secure the lid as it will pop open otherwise.”

 “Can I include other items in my box, like playing cards, wipes or DVDs?"

  • Our Marine mom, Judy, says that her son and his fellow Marines are requesting boxes of only food. Seems we have some hungry Marines on our hands! So save the non-edible items for a different care package.

 “Is it OK if I put a Christmas card in my box?" 

  • Definitely. Please tell these Marines a little about you and why you’re sending this box. There can never be too much holiday cheer.

 

Thursday
Nov102011

Operation Cookie Overload: Will you help a Marine mom make her deployed son’s Christmas merry and bright?

It seems appropriate on this Veterans Day to ask for your help for our newest project supporting some of our youngest men in uniform. Many, many of you have emailed us to ask how you can send cookies to some of our troops this holiday season. Here’s your chance. Judy, a Marine mom, has a 19-year-old son, Solomon, serving on the front lines in Afghanistan. She says: 

The unit my son is with has endured a lot of injuries and loss of these selfless young men. It is heartbreaking to see these families go through these ordeals let alone what these brave young men are enduring on a daily basis. I cannot imagine! ... I am asking for your help in making these young heroes have a nice holiday. ... I am very proud of my son and his fellow comrades.

In the spirit of the season, we’re launching Operation Cookie Overload. Let’s get baking and let Judy’s son and his fellow Marines know that we’ve got them in our thoughts. 

Now, the nitty-gritty (and sugary) details:

  1. Sign up! To participate, send us a private email with your complete name and address. (Email us at christinestrength@me.com or use this secure form.) We’ll then email you this young Marine’s name and the military address to send your box of edible goodies. 
  2. Take OPSEC seriously. An important reminder: Because these Marines are in a war zone, privacy and security is a top priority. Do not post this Marine’s name or address online or elsewhere. OPSEC (Operations Security) is something we take seriously. 
  3. Send only edible items. These Marines are always on the move, so they don’t need extra holiday trinkets to lug around. Judy requests that you send boxes full of food items only.  
  4. Bake or shop. Homemade cookies are great, but don’t forget about all the other holiday treats that fill the stores this time of year. The commissary at Hanscom Air Force Base where we shop is filled with all sorts of goodies, like candy-cane Oreo cookies (yum!) and powdered-sugar-covered Pferreneusse. Store-bought treats like these are big favorites of our troops, and they’ll stay fresh much longer than home-baked versions.
  5. Send enough to share! Judy’s son will be sharing all these goodies with his fellow Marines, so send enough to pass around. Where sweets are concerned, the more, the merrier!
  6. Mail your box soon. The deadlines for guaranteed mail delivery to military overseas addresses by December 25th is fast approaching. For this particular address, Priority Mail must be sent by December 10th. Parcel Post must be sent by November 12th. (We harp on this a lot, and we’ll do it again: Parcel Post is slower than molasses. So if you’re sending homemade Giant Molasses Cookies, don’t use Parcel Post. The cookies will most certainly arrive stale. Only use Parcel Post if you’re sending store-bought items with a long shelf life.)
  7. You are responsible for shipping costs. Our best advice is pick up your mailing boxes first, then buy and bake items that fit into it. Because cookies and food can add up weight-wise, the least expensive way to ship is likely a Priority Mail Large Flat Rate box. It normally costs $14.95 to ship, but when you’re mailing it to an APO/FPO military address, it will only cost $12.95 no matter how much it weighs. A Priority Mail Medium Flat Rate box will cost $10.95 to ship. 
  8. Get packing tips. The nice folks at Taste of Home magazine did a terrific story on The Strength Behind the Strong — with tons of great military care package tips — in the new November issue (page 80). Check out our video too!
  9. Snap some pictures. We’d love to know what goodies you're sending. So send us some pictures of you and your family baking and assembling your boxes. We’d love to post them here on our website.

Finally, be sure to include a card in your care package. Go ahead and tell these Marines a little about yourself. But don’t hold your breath waiting for a written thank you. These Marines are understandably busy with life-and-death situations. But you’ll know that you’ve sent some young Marines a piece of Christmas from home. And that’s one of the best gifts you can give this season.

No, this isn't a photo of the Marines who’d love cookies! But it’s two of my favorite vets, my husband, Kyle, and his battle buddy during two tours to Iraq, Rich. Happy Veterans Day to all who have served or are serving.

 

Sunday
Nov062011

Twice as Nice: Two clocks help military friends and family answer this question quickly: What time is it over there?

Today’s end of Daylight Savings Time throws many Americans into a clock-induced tizzy for 24 hours, as they show up an hour early to grandma’s house for Sunday dinner or the kids’ football game. But those of us with friends and family in the military often look at the clock and feel out of whack on a daily basis. Is it too early to try to Skype to Afghanistan? Is it too late to expect a phone call today from Guam? How many hours separate me from Korea? Here is a super-simple solution I use to keep myself on track, and it works terrifically whether your daughter is deployed overseas or your boyfriend is gone for six months of training on the other side of the country: Hang two clocks next to each other. Set one to your current time, and set the other to match when your loved one is. 

This was my kitchen, below, when we lived near Fort Drum, New York. I picked up these two battery-operated wall clocks at Target for about $15 each. My clock was on top, set to New York time. My husband’s deployment clock was on the bottom, set eight hours ahead to Baghdad time. It’s a little thing, but it helps make separations just a little easier to manage. 

Two is better than one when it comes to clocks. Set one to your time zone, then set the other to the time zone of your military loved one.

Friday
Nov042011

Praying It Forward: An Alabama woman supports our troops with help from up above

Little gestures can have a big impact on our troops and their families. Linda Burrowes of Alabama reminded us so sweetly of that this week. She keeps a prayer list, she says, that includes the names of some of our military she has met in her travels: 

This past summer I was flying to see my mother as she was critically ill. There was a soldier sitting across from me in the terminal, and I asked where he was going. He was home for two weeks and [then would be] returning to Afghanistan for another six months. I asked his name and told him I would pray for him. He shook my hand and told me how much he appreciated it. Another time we ran into a mother and son whose husband/father just left for Iraq that day, and I prayed for him for the year he was gone. I’ll never see these people again, but I feel that my prayers will help them come home safely (or at least I would like to think so!) ... Every morning I have a prayer list and pray for them and the other needs my family and friends have.

Linda also keeps a toy soldier on her desk at work so our troops remain in her thoughts. Many blessings to Linda who is truly The Strength Behind the Strong. 

Tuesday
Nov012011

Giving Thanks: Meaningful ways to send holiday cheer to our troops this season

The spirit of the Christmas season has arrived early this year! We’ve received dozens and dozens of emails in the last few of weeks (Hello, Taste of Home magazine readers!) from folks from all across the country wanting to send a cookie-filled care package to some of our troops serving overseas. How sweet! Unfortunately — or, more appropriately, fortunately — our Adopt an MP soldiers that many people have asked about are all safely back home. But we’re glad that there are lots of organizations in addition to ours that support our military. To get involved, check out some of our favorites: 

  1. Soldiers’ Angels. This organization currently has 227 “heroes” waiting for adoption. Adopt one of the Soldiers’ Angels military men and women with your family, school, church, or neighbors. Then check back here for all the details on ordering a free military care package kit, getting the best deals on postage, the nine most wanted care package items (and three to skip), and — of course — our famous Hershey’s Kiss cookie trick.
  2. Cup O’ Joe for a Joe. For just $2 you can send a cup of Green Beans Coffee to a service member serving overseas. What’s nice is that you often get an email back from the thankful soldier within days. 
  3. Treats For Troops. These volunteers ship six tons of care packages a week to our troops. And if you’re in Tampa, Florida, this week, Treats For Troops is collecting extra Halloween candy to ship overseas.
  4. Operation Santa. The great folks at Citizen S.A.M. still need stocking stuffers for Operation Santa, which will be sending more than 30,000 handmade stockings sending overseas for this holiday season.  

Closer to home, if you know that the child of a friend of a friend of a friend is deployed, call up the family and offer to send a cheerful holiday package. If there’s one thing a deployed soldier never gets tired of, it’s packages and letters — and cookies — from home.

Sunday
Oct302011

Wrap it, ship it! 2011 Christmas military mail deadlines announced

Given that there are several inches of snow on the ground this morning in Massachusetts, it feels like the perfect time to talk about Christmas! Keep these mailing deadlines in line if you’ll be sending holiday gifts overseas to your military loved ones this year.

I’ve mentioned before that I’ve had great luck with the U.S. Postal Service and military mail. During our Adopt an MP program we even had one package make it to Iraq in just five days! But I’m not a fan of Parcel Post. Not only is it slow (Christmas cookies will likely be stale on arrival when sent via Parcel Post), but often Parcel Post is only pennies less expensive than Priority Mail. So for most of my boxes, I stick with Priority Mail. (To stretch your shipping dollars, be sure to calculate whether traditional zone-based Priority Mail or Flat Rate Priority Mail is your best option.) Merry Christmas!   

Wednesday
Oct262011

Check us out in Taste of Home magazine!

Whoohoo! This little ole website has made it to the big time. The deliciously wonderful Taste of Home magazine has a feature on The Strength Behind the Strong in its new November 2011 issue, which is on newsstands now. (We are featured in the “Cooks Who Care” section on page 80.)

A huge thanks to the editor, Jeanne Ambrose, for inviting me out to the Taste of Home test kitchens in Wisconsin, where I got to taste the addictive Giant Molasses Cookies and film a web video filled with military care package tips. And a double-special thanks to all the folks in the Taste of Home test kitchen who baked hundreds of those Giant Molasses Cookies to send to some of our Marines who are serving in Afghanistan. Thanks for supporting our troops!  

 

Friday
Sep022011

Safety Matters: Why military friends and families should carry dog tags too

One of the many downsides of having a loved one deployed in a war zone is that the mind tends to wander toward not-so-cheery places. One thought I had often while living near Fort Drum, New York, during my husband’s Iraq tours was this: I don’t know many people in this town, and my closest family is five hours away. And when I go outside to exercise, I don’t like to carry anything with me except my music player and keys. So what if I get hit by a car or knocked unconscious? It will surely take the doctors and police hours, if not days, to figure out my identity.

I’m a military spouse, so the solution to my problem should have been obvious to me sooner: I got myself a dog tag. If you exercise without carrying a driver’s license or other ID, consider getting your own dog tag for peace of mind.

This is my dog tag, which I keep in a pouch that attaches to my sneaker. It only cost about $3 and is printed with my full name and home phone number, plus the phone numbers for my parents and in-laws. (The area codes are blurred out on the photo.) The military issues dog tags for good reason: The metal tags are ultra durable, so they won’t wear out no matter how much rain, heat, snow, and sweat they’re exposed to.

You don’t need to be in the military to carry a dog tag. Mine is printed with my full name and three phone numbers for my home and family.

I bought my dog tag at Bradley’s Military Surplus right outside the main gate at Fort Drum. (They also sell online.) Pick yours up at a military supply store; most will make it for you on the spot. And don’t worry that you’re not in the military. The shop owners are happy to sell us civilians their merchandise.

In case of emergency, I keep a dogtag — and a $20 bill — in a pouch that’s always attached to my sneakers.

Even though my husband is back home and would notice if I didn’t return from a run, I feel safer knowing that should something bad happen, it would take just a few seconds for a Good Samaritan to find my name and contact information. 

Monday
Jul042011

You’re a Grand Old Flag! 

Happy birthday, USA! As always, our thoughts are with all members of our military who can’t be home today. As a lobster-loving New Englander (at least until the Army moves us in another year), I’m celebrating the holiday by adding another red, white, and blue item to our home with this needlepoint flag. I may be the slowest stitcher in this great land, so here’s hoping it’s finished by July 4, 2012. Happy Fourth!