Each month of Air Force Lt. Col. Chris Martin's service in Afghanistan was marked by a care package from women he hadn't met, sent from a place he didn't live.
Hearts to Heroes adopted him into their program anyway. The ministry, created by the Grace Sunday School Class of First Baptist Church of Augusta, sends "love boxes" to troops every month.
About 300 boxes have gone out from the ministry, which had its start with a group of women delivering homemade goodies, cards and flowers to the VA Medical Centers in 2005.
When Lt. Col Martin returned from Kabul in January, he made a point to visit the church that had supported him.
On Tuesday at First Baptist, he packed boxes for other service members alongside the founders of Hearts to Heroes and a group of children from St. Mary on the Hill School.
They crammed 30 boxes full of magazines, DVDs, and enough candy and snacks for the recipients to share with other U.S. troops and Afghan and Iraqi children.
The St. Mary children asked Lt. Col. Martin, who was in Augusta to visit relatives, what living in Afghanistan was like.
"Have you ever been to camp? It's kind of like that," he said.
The children made cards for the troops, and the women of the Sunday school class stuffed Valentines inside.
"These are going to be for the soldiers," said Rita Smith, a fifth-grader at St. Mary, said as she folded a card. "I'm going to put on the cover, 'God Bless the USA,' and on the inside, 'Thank you for serving us.' "
The packages typically arrive in two or three weeks. Often, letters of thanks are returned.
In October, a military chaplain wrote to say, "The look of delight on the soldiers' faces told the story when we passed out the items to each of the guys -- what a blessing to know that even though the geographic distance separates us, our loved ones back home are still thinking of us as we carry Freedom's banner to far-off lands."
An Army lieutenant sent a postcard with the note, "I had the opportunity to share your goodie box with members of my platoon. We are all very grateful for your package, but more importantly your example. Your desire to help a total stranger helps keep my soldiers and myself motivated that we are fighting a fight that can be won."
Just before Christmas, Marcia Buck received a package from a soldier in Iraq. She is a founder of the ministry, one of the women to make the first visit delivering flowers to the VA hospitals on Memorial Day 2005.
The package had an American flag and a certificate that said it was flown over Iraqi headquarters in their honor.
"I never imagined," she said. "I never realized the impact of delivering those flowers. And now look."
Reach Kelly Jasper at (706) 823-3552 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
HAVE A HEART
DONATE: The Hearts to Heroes ministry accepts items to be sent to service members, along with money to help purchase boxes, postage and supplies.
SIGN UP A SOLDIER: Call First Baptist of Augusta at (706) 733-2236 and leave the name and overseas address of a service member who would like to receive a package.