Linda Craig never forgot the phone call she received from her son eight years ago asking her if anybody remembered he and his fellow troops were in Iraq.
“I felt helpless. I didn’t know what I could do. I waned to do something that showed we cared, appreciated what they were doing and that we were thinking about them and not forgetting them because we did that in Vietnam,” Craig said.
To help her son, Andrew Roy Craig Jr., Linda Craig joined Manasota Operation Troop Support and has been its director about six years. The organization has grown dramatically and today serves more than 700 soldiers from Manatee and Sarasota counties by sending them food and gifts that include letters of support from children and adults.
MOTS was founded in 2007 by Jim Comkowycz, a teacher at King Middle School. Its initial purpose was to send care packages to troops overseas but it expanded to add multiple services. After an initial funding grant dried up, most people thought the venture had ended, but Craig has kept things going.
“I grew up in a military family in the Air Force so we learned service young,” Craig said. “We help soldiers get into rehab programs and hook them up with other organizations to get help. The main items we send are protein, sweet and sour snacks, books, hygiene supplies and lots of letters from the community, many from the churches and schools.”
MOTS has its own warehouse where it collects and packages supplies it sends out every month. On Saturday morning, the organization had its first packaging party at McKechnie Field courtesy of the Bradenton Marauders and Pittsburgh Pirates.
A different venue brought some new people, which Craig said he appreciated because there is no formal list of service men and women from Manatee and Sarasota counties who are in the military and lot of the information is passed word-of-mouth.
“What we try to do is provide hope for a lot of people who are far from family and are in a dangerous place,” Craig said. “I want them to come home to a community that they remember cared for about them every month and not just on Memorial Day or Christmas. This is a constant reminder we are here for them.”
Craig’s words echoed the thoughts of many of the people who came to the packaging party.
“I have a son (Dallas Collins) in the Navy. When he was overseas it meant everything to him to receive these packages and to be able to share some of them with his shipmates because there are a lot of guys who don’t get anything from home,” said Lynn Bondanza, 46. “The most important thing for these guys is to receive letters from the kids telling them that they appreciate what they are doing.”
Lori Rushnell, 46, who has a daughter in the U.S. Navy, says many of her shipmates were really impressed Manatee County took the time to recognize its servicemen and women and it was a great testimony her hometown.
Bobby Fearon, 32, who served in Iraq and Kuwait from 2006 through 2009 and is still active in the U.S. National Guard, couldn’t miss the packaging party because he knows what it’s like to receive them when overseas in an hostile environment.
“To receive those packages is a big deal. It’s always good to get mail and share it with your buddies or take it on trips when doing long convoys and knowing someone loves you back home,” Fearon said. “When you get a package from home it’s the best feeling you can get. When someone sends you a picture or a letter that they miss you it’s a great feeling.”
Denise Flint, 52, added, “We came out here today to help MOTS and put boxes together for the troops to show them we support them and appreciate what they do to keep us free.”
Brent and Kelly Cohenour, owners of two local taverns, came to donate bicycles and other goods after seeing MOTS Facebook page.
“My father was in the military and I have respect what he did for our country. I have a lot of friends in the military and I want to show our support and thank them for what they are doing for us,” Brent said.
Craig’s son, a staff sergeant, has suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder and is about 80 percent disabled, but living a productive life, she say,s in part because of MOTS.