AL DHAFRA AIR BASE, United Arab Emirates --
Mail call has arguably been one of the most iconic features of deployed military life throughout the years. From World War II where letters were the only form of communication back home, to today’s digital world of shopping online, mail and packages remain critical to a military member’s morale and well-being.
However, care packages sent by well-meaning loved ones and strangers sometimes contain items that the recipient will not use. In these cases, some package contents can go to waste.
That’s where the 380th Air Expeditionary Wing Chapel steps in.
“We knew that there was a need and that there were [people] who were willing to receive our items,” said Chaplain (Capt.) James Longe. “It’s good for us because we don’t have to throw things away, but it’s also good because we want to make a lasting impact. This is more than a deployment; this is about improving the human race, us included.”
Longe, deployed from Lackland Air Force Base, Texas, took up the yoke of the chapel’s Humanitarian Outreach program upon his arrival and breathed new life into it. This program collects excess care package items and donations and gives it to those in need.
The previous Catholic chaplain had focused the ministry on civilian contractors working on the U.S. compound. However, while working closely with a local church, he discovered that some foreign residents and immigrants working in the community were also in great need.
“We’re focused on those living here who are kind of like our grandparents and great grandparents when they first came to [the United States],” said Longe. “The people who are very weak go to these churches and their needs are known. We just want to provide for those needs without asking too many questions.”
To help address these needs, he placed a basket at the front of the chapel to collect excess non-perishable food items, toiletries, and other necessities. He and the other chaplains made sure that its purpose was explained at every spiritual service. Though Longe never asked Airmen to purchase items, individuals or squadrons could also choose to contribute specific items.
Every item that the chapel received had to be inspected for any flaws or security violations. Longe would sit on the floor of his office and sort items into piles by type, size and color. This process would take him hours of work to complete, he said.
In his frequent visits to squadrons around the base, Longe spoke to Airmen about the work he was trying to do. The ministry struck a chord with some, and they rolled up their sleeves to help. Tech. Sgt. Adam Martin, NCO in charge of the 380th Expeditionary Logistics Readiness Squadron vehicle management flight, volunteers to transport boxes of donations to the church off base.
“I think what makes this so important is the impact that we can have on people that can use the items that we would probably just ignore or throw away,” said Martin. “We can give them supplies that they would otherwise have to buy, which would take away from the money used to support their families in less fortunate countries.”
The Humanitarian Outreach program has since expanded, and practically every squadron on base has lent a helping hand. Since the beginning of the current deployment rotation, the ministry has donated over 2 tons of goods to foreign residents in the local community.
“The staff at the Church where we take it to are very grateful for our donations,” said Martin. “There are many generous people here donating towards this, but the more donations we have the more people we can help.”
Longe emphasized that a ministry like this in a deployed location serves as a unique opportunity to improve the lives of others.
“In the United States, this kind of ministry is about national pride and being decent to your neighbor,” he said. “Here, we’re not blessing patriots, we’re blessing strangers. It’s easy to give to those that you know and you love, but sometimes it’s more difficult to give to those you don’t know, who are different.”
A program like this is a rare occurrence in a deployed environment, said Longe. Deployed military members may not have very much to give, but even the smallest item can mean the world to someone in need.
After all, it was Mother Theresa who once said, “It’s not how much we give but how much love we put into giving.”