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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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Entries in Care packages (30)

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.

 

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!  

 

Monday
Mar212011

Back from Iraq! Our adopted soldiers from the 108th MP Company arrive home safely

Here is some news that’s guaranteed to put a smile on your face: Just before midnight last Thursday, all the soldiers from the 108th Military Police (MP) Company (Airborne) arrived home in Fort Bragg, North Carolina, after a year-long deployment to Iraq. We are so glad they are back in the USA, safe and sound. 

This homecoming is especially meaningful to the volunteers in our Adopt an MP program. These fantastic Americans (plus one outstanding Australian) ‘adopted’ 38 unmarried soldiers from the 108th MP Company, sending letters and care packages month after month. Their creativity was impressive. One person sent multiple shipments of boxed macaroni and cheese at the request of her soldier, while another sent water balloon toys. And one family sent Duck tape, reasoning that “ ... it’s something you can never have too much of ... ” We hope the little bits of home we sent overseas gave these young men and women something to smile about too. 

Although they didn’t do it for glory or recognition, we’d like to give a big Hooah! to the Adopt an MP volunteers. There aren’t a lot of people who would do what they did: spend time and money over the course of an entire year to make sure a stranger feels honored and remembered. A million thank yous to these fine folks:

Becky, Gayla, Franni, Clesha, Sandy, Connie, Michele, Suzanne, Mari, Jennifer, Jodi, Sue, Chris, Jody, Sarah, Deborah, Elizabeth, Ellena, Sheila, Bette, Julianne, Judi, Max, Joni, Tom, Joleigh, Kristene, Charmaine, Ron, Anna, Frank, Jordan, Wendy, and Debbie.

Goodbye, Iraq! Welcome home, soldiers of the 108th MP Company! This banner from Jackson and Abigail was just one of many items that made their way to deployed soldiers as part of our Adopt an MP program.

Wednesday
Nov242010

Holiday Gift Idea for Deployed Warriors: Send blank (yes, blank) cards 

The new Company Commander of the 108th MP Company emailed me from Iraq with a terrific idea for anyone who has loved ones deployed overseas this holiday season: Send them boxes of blank Christmas cards so they can mail holiday greetings from Iraq, Afghanistan, or wherever Hallmark stores are in short supply. I bought two boxes of cards for each of my Adopt an MP soldiers, including this “believe” card. Be sure to mail the blank cards soon: They need time to make the journey overseas — and back — by Christmas. 

The Reindeer Believe holiday cards from paper-source.com channel the spirit of the season.

Tuesday
Nov162010

Haven’t heard from your [a] Adopt an MP soldier [b] deployed friend or [c] brother in boot camp? Send a form letter. (It works!)

We are seven months into our year-long Adopt an MP program, and lots of letters, postcards, and care packages have been sent to Iraq. Our volunteers have been real troupers, sending cheer to strangers overseas to make sure these soldiers know they are not forgotten. But while many volunteers have received thank-you letters or email updates — or have friended their soldier on Facebook — others haven’t heard that their packages have made it to Iraq. (For the record, we know that everyone in the 108th MP Company is safe, thanks to the newsletters the Company puts out every month.)

All of us understand that these young men and women have tough jobs, and we’re sure they’d prefer to spend their spare time eating cookies and relaxing, rather than stressing over letters to strangers. So here’s an idea to bridge the gap and make things easy on the soldier — and give you peace of mind that your packages are making it to their destination. 

Type up a fun form letter for your soldiers to fill out and send back to you. All they have to do is check some boxes, fill in a few blanks, and send it on its way back to the States. Easy and quick! I borrowed this idea from Jody, one of our volunteers. And it worked for both of us. (The letter, below, is one I got back last week from my soldier, Robert.) The sillier and more humorous you make your letter, the more likely you are to get a response. The form letters are great for strangers, and they are also a great option for friends in boot camp. 

Don’t forget to include a self-addressed envelope with your form letter so your soldier doesn’t have to dig out your address and find an envelope. Notice I didn’t say self-addressed stamped envelope: You don’t need to add a stamp because deployed servicemembers can send first-class mail for free

 

If you send a form letter to a soldier, please send us a copy! We’d love to see other fill-in-the-blank letters in action.

Tuesday
Sep072010

Go Green, Save Green: The secret to reusing boxes for military care packages

Attention fellow military care package senders: Raise your hand if you save and reuse boxes like this well-worn one (below), which has clearly bumped and banged its way through the mail system several times. You’ll love this quick trick that gives new life to those old boxes while also removing the hassles of inking out labels and trying to squeeze on yet another address and customs form. 

Image of a cardboard box for military care packages covered in crossed-out mailing labels. From TheStrengthBehindtheStrong.com.

It’s simple. First, untape every box flap. Next, locate the glued seam (there is usually just one) and carefully tear it apart so that it lays flat like the box below. Leave all those ugly stickers right where they are.

Image of the military care package box cut along the glued seam and flattened out into a single layer of cardboard. From TheStrengthBehindTheStrong.com.

Finally, turn the box inside out, then refold and retape so that all the old labels and hand-scrawled addresses are hidden on the inside. 

Image of the military care package box taped back together inside-out. Old labels are on the inside, clean cardboard is on the outside. From TheStrengthBehindTheStrong.com.

Good as new! Send your freshened-up box on its way. It’s got many more trips left in it.

Free boxes are great, now how about some ideas for free items to put inside that care package? Check out “Zip, zilch, nada, zero: Useful and fun care package items that won’t cost you a penny.”