Story by Capt. Joseph Bush, 1st Battalion, 15th Infantry Regiment Public Affairs
FORT BENNING, Ga. -- Soldiers returning home from extended deployments are often greeted by an empty barracks room with minimum necessities.
“It was like where’s the welcome,” recalled Kathy Orcutt, Chief Executive Officer and founder of Hugs For Our Soldiers. “You could see it in his face, when he opened that door to his barracks room with nothing there. It broke my heart.”
Orcutt ‘adopted’ the soldier assigned to the 1st Battalion, 15th Infantry Regiment, 3rd Armored Brigade Combat Team, 3rd Infantry Division during Operation Iraqi Freedom V, and has continued supporting Sledgehammer soldiers since.
Hugs for Our Soldiers, is a nonprofit organization started in Duluth, Ga., dedicated to supporting soldiers at home and abroad. The group has since relocated to Vonore, Tenn., and has grown nationwide with a majority of their volunteers in Tennessee, Georgia and Florida.
The 3rd Armored Brigade Combat Team, 3rd Infantry Division is among the most deployed brigade combat teams in the Army, and is preparing to return from their sixth deployment since 9/11, a nine-month deployment to Kuwait in support of Third Army and Central Command.
This year Hugs for Our Soldiers wanted to go the extra mile and have something in the barracks rooms for the single soldiers of the Sledgehammer Brigade. From the start of the deployment, the volunteer organization has been raising funds to put together welcome home bags filled with food. Bags include soup, fruit cups, popcorn as well as giant Hershey bars. They also made hygiene bags with toothbrushes, soap and other various items needed to help sustain the soldiers as they transition back to Fort Benning. They tried to go beyond just the basics and also get bed sheets and towels for the returning troops.
“It’s nice to have a fresh towel,” Orcutt said. “One that doesn’t have sand in it.”
Hugs for Our Soldiers started gathering money in September during the Duluth Fall Festival, with help from the 1-15 IN rear detachment. Soldiers from the Can Do Battalion went to Duluth to march in the parade and work a booth provided by the charity group. Local children had a chance to interact with soldiers and try on some helmets.
“Their eyes just twinkled when they looked up at these soldiers,” said Orcutt.
Additional funds came from Hugs volunteers sitting at the only intersection in Vonore with flyers and buckets asking for donations from passing motorists.
The gathering of supplies was not without its own perils. Orcutt said they had to go to a Black Friday sale to get the towels. She and the volunteers arrived at the store early to gather around the towels, but then other shoppers began surrounding them. She thought they were going to get trampled trying to get the 300 towels. Then in an act of selfless generosity, the shoppers began helping Hugs for Our Soldiers load up the towels they needed before helping themselves.
In January, Orcutt and several volunteers made the trip from her home in Tennessee to Fort Benning, Ga., to start building the bags. They meet up with Kathy Kraft, the 1-15 IN Family Readiness Group leader, at the battalion headquarters to fill up the bags with the help of the rear detachment soldiers. Over the course of four hours, they built 214 bags for the battalion’s single soldiers who would be returning. After they finished the gifts, Orcutt said they heard that the two other organizations supporting the rest of the brigade were struggling to provide gifts for each returning soldier.
“It broke our hearts,” said Orcutt.
With the help of a few soldiers, like Spc. Lucas Wessel and his wife, who stayed until 8 p.m., they were able to assemble 360 additional bags. Orcutt regrets they could not have given more, but at least every single soldier in 3rd Brigade will receive something special when returning from deployment.
In addition to the barracks warming gifts, 6th graders from Heritage Middle School in Tennessee are making welcome home signs. Orcutt plans to hang them above the soldiers’ beds to create a warm welcome home for them as they return to the barracks.
“I loved every minute of it and would not trade it for anything,” said Orcutt. “That’s our mission, taking care of troops and making them feel welcome when they come home.”
For more information on Hugs for Our Soldiers visit their website at www.hugsforoursoldiers.org.
|Date Posted:||01.31.2013 13:53|
|Location:||FORT BENNING, GA, US|
This work, Hugs welcome redeploying Sledgehammer soldiers, is free of known copyright restrictions under U.S. copyright law.