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Home front packages with care Parcels shipped out to Marines in Iraq.

With precision and care, Stephanie Thompson packed small treats of cookies, candy and coffee into a box that would be topped with a Christmas card and mailed. Instead of going to a friend or relative, the package will end up with someone on the other side of the globe.


By SARA SEMELKA of the Tribune’s staff
Published Sunday, December 10, 2006

"I do this to just do my part," she said, sending another box down the makeshift assembly line at MarineParents.com headquarters at 2810 Lemone Industrial Blvd.

Derrick Jensen was at the beginning of the assembly line that snaked through two rooms and a hallway of the office. He assembled cardboard boxes to be filled with treats. The Hickman graduate knows more than most how good it can feel to get a care package while on duty in Iraq.

"I was in Iraq in 2003 when the war began, and again in 2004 in Fallujah and then in 2005 in Fallujah," Jensen said. "It was great" to get a package. "It’s sort of a peace of mind you get that someone back home is thinking of you. It makes you feel better when you’re in a place that’s hostile."

He said his mother, Tracy Della Vecchia, sent him packages "all the time" that contained mostly food.

"I worked out a lot, so I asked for food," he said. "But I’m mostly hungry all the time anyway."

Jensen has about two years left of inactive duty with the Marines. He has worked at MarineParents.com since February, but hopes to attend college, possibly the University of Missouri-Columbia, next fall.

When Jensen was first deployed overseas, Della Vecchia in 2003 began MarineMoms.com, which later became MarineParents.com, a Web site that gets 12 million hits a week and has gained national recognition.

"Parents wanted a place they could come to and find others who were going through the intense emotions of having a son or daughter deployed," Della Vecchia said. "They wonder ‘Are they going to come home?’ ‘Are they going to come home in one piece?’ "

Lately, there have been more requests for information about Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, injuries and veteran’s benefits, she said.

"Everything we do comes straight from the wants or needs of the Marines," she said. Marine families can request care packages, but most of the addresses come from post cards sent by Marines mentioning buddies who aren’t receiving packages.

The most-often requested items in care packages are food and tobacco, but Marines frequently ask for baby wipes, toothpaste and more recently, dandruff shampoo.

"About 70 percent of the requests we" get" "are from Marines from Forward Operating Bases, which means they have no home base, they are on the move," Della Vecchia said. "They have a traveling Post Exchange, where they can buy items, but when they are out of something, they are just out."

The volunteers at MarineParents.com hope the care packages will fill in the gaps.

"You’d be surprised how much you can get in here," Thompson, who drove in from Kansas City to help, said while layering socks over containers of chewing tobacco.

"I like to get some meat in each one," she said, placing a can of tuna in each box. "It’s like a puzzle."

One of 26 volunteers yesterday, Thompson, continued fitting packages of trail mix, coffee and granola into crevices in each box.

"Now we’re at the finishing table, and you’ve really got to jimmy it in there," she said, squeezing facial tissue, hand warmers, dental floss, pens and bagged candy into any leftover spaces.

"My cousin was in Fallujah and Iraq," she said. "I think it means a lot to them. I think it helps support their spirit."

Then each box gets one last touch: a letter or card from an elementary school student.

The packages were sent by priority mail, using $8,505 in donated postage.

By the end of the day, there were still 442 packages to be stuffed and mailed. Della Vecchia invited volunteers to join her at the MarineParents.com facility between 9 a.m. and 2 p.m. today.

Della Vecchia never thought her involvement would go as far as it has.

"I didn’t mean to do this, honestly," she said. "But as long as there are troops that need support, this is my place. When they come back, they need to be remembered, their families need to be remembered. Whether you agree with what’s going on over there or not, it doesn’t matter if you are to the right or left, there are kids and families making sacrifices, and they need our thanks."

Reach Sara Semelka at (573) 815-1717 or ssemelka@tribmail.com.