"Mom and dad, I’m being deployed, but I can’t tell you when or where," she told them in March 2004. Weeks later, Tracy, who is now 38, was in Kuwait and then Iraq for a one-year tour.
Knowing that their daughter was enduring long days in 100-plus-degree heat, Wendy and John wanted to do whatever they could to provide her some comforts of home. "When we asked her what we could send to her, we were shocked by what she told us," says John, an Army veteran who’s now a sales associate with Century 21 Commonwealth in Watertown, Mass., and a police field training officer for the Department of Veterans Affairs. "Supplies at the PX [Army store] were limited and soldiers were waiting in line for up to eight hours in blistering heat."
So John and Wendy "went out and bought $800 worth of toiletries, books, and snacks—and then spent hundreds of dollars to ship it," says Wendy, who’s also a sales associate with Century 21 Commonwealth.
When Tracy received the box a month later, "she called home and told us about a few soldiers in her unit who still hadn’t received any mail. She asked if we could send them something," Wendy says, noting that some soldiers come from fractured or unsupportive families and have no one to reach out to them.
100 Boxes a Month
Requests for packages mushroomed as Tracy passed along the names of other soldiers and as those soldiers spread the word to their comrades in need of a lift. "If we get a request, we send a package," Wendy says. "No one is turned down."
Soon the Roccas were spending thousands of dollars of their own money buying supplies and shipping boxes. "When a couple of names turned into 1,500, we realized we’d have to start asking for donations," Wendy says.
Thus was born Operation American Soldier, a charity that sends care packages to soldiers in foreign countries. Its motto: No soldier walks away from mail call empty-handed. "We send the majority of packages to Iraq and Afghanistan, but we’ve also sent them to Cuba, Italy, anywhere," Wendy says.
The boxes and supplies took over the Roccas’ dining room table and then overflowed into their basement. Eventually, the local Marine Corps offered space at its headquarters, along with a much-needed storage unit.
To fulfill the growing demand for items to fill their "cheerboxes," John and Wendy placed ads in the local newspaper asking the public for supplies and monetary donations. "People would leave packages of supplies at our front door," Wendy says. But raising funds has proven to be more difficult. "It costs a lot to send these packages overseas," John says. "It’s about $1.50 per pound, and we’ve shipped close to 35,000 pounds."
A team of volunteers help John and Wendy stuff as many as 100 boxes per month and write personal notes to each soldier. The Roccas also secured corporate donors, including CVS/pharmacy, which supplies snacks and toiletries, and Dunkin’ Donuts, which gives coffee.
A Family Affair
Tracy Rocca isn’t the only family member who’s personally benefited from a cheerbox. The Roccas also have two sons in the military: Tony, 25, is a sergeant in the Army Reserves, 94th MP Company, and is currently serving at Camp Liberty in Baghdad. Nick, 23 (pictured with Wendy, top right), is a specialist with the Army National Guard, 101st Combat Engineers, who just returned home from Camp Liberty.
"There were a lot of soldiers who had no family contact," Nick says. "Getting a box would literally turn their week around."
He says the best part was the food. "Anytime we could microwave food in our room instead of walking a mile in full uniform in 120-degree heat, it was huge."
The powerful stories of soldiers whose spirits have been lifted by the care packages have helped the Roccas recruit volunteers and raise money—about $15,000 to date.
Michael Munger, a former Marine, was stationed in Kosovo as the commander of the United Nations Special Operations Command. "We had a group of 20 soldiers stationed for 13 months in the mountains," he says. "We rarely made it to a base, so we had no contact with family or with the outside world."
One Christmas, a helicopter drop gave the soldiers hope in the form of a package from Operation American Soldier. "Every time a soldier gets a package, it’s shared with everyone," Munger says. "The personal note is powerful. You fold the letter and stick it in your pocket and it just hits you—someone cares about you."
For Wendy and John, regardless of whether their kids are at home or stationed overseas, the boxes will continue to ship. "We’re trying to serve as many soldiers as we can. This is the very least we can do for them considering all they’re doing for us," Wendy says.