One of the first things a soldier wants to do when returning from deployment is take a shower, says Army Sgt. Frank Carson of the Third Infantry Division. That might not seem like much, but it's a luxury to many single soldiers coming back after months away from home.
While married soldiers can rely on their spouses to provide soap and shampoo, single soldiers often return to empty barracks.
To complicate things, Carson said when soldiers come back from deployment, they are not allowed to drive a vehicle for the first 48 hours. That means they can't go to the store unless they have someone drive them there.
Carson is the installation Better Opportunities for Single Soldiers president for the Third Infantry Division at Fort Stewart in Hinesville, Ga., and Hunter Army Airfield in Savannah. He said the BOSS program used to provide "welcome home" bags to returning soldiers, but budget cuts eliminated them.
When Savannah writer Carol Megathlin heard that news, she was eager to help. As the coordinator for the Third Infantry Division Adopt A Soldier Program, Megathlin is passionate about supporting service men and women. She said volunteers from across the country have sent letters and care packages to deployed soldiers through the program.
So when she heard the "welcome home" bags would be cut, the freelance columnist decided to write about her newest effort -- Operation Welcome Home. The program gives volunteers an opportunity to support the troops by donating simple items such as toothpaste and shaving cream so they can clean up when they return from deployment. Megathlin has two women coordinating the efforts -- one in Jacksonville, Fla., and one in the Lowcountry. They spread the word and solicit donations, package the items and get them to the soldiers.
Megathlin said the response has been overwhelming. Local donations have poured in.
"I just am constantly amazed at the support that this community -- the communities of Hilton Head and Savannah and Hinesville and on down the coast -- (gives) our military," Megathlin said. "And I've heard from many of (the troops) that of all the places they've been stationed, no community is as supportive of them as this community is."
Megathlin also emailed all her Adopt A Soldier volunteers, including Hilton Head Island resident Marjie Gaynor, explaining the situation and asking for help. Gaynor told her neighbors in Wexford Plantation about the soldiers' needs and quickly rounded up dozens of volunteers.
"I thought, 'Oh, you know what? This is something that we could do ... and be part of an active volunteer effort saying thank you to the soldiers when they come home,'" Gaynor said.
Now Gaynor and about 75 other Wexford residents are participating in Operation Welcome Home. She said three other plantations have expressed interest in the program.
Gaynor is notified two months before soldiers are scheduled to return from deployment. She alerts her neighbors, and they start collecting toiletry items to drop off r house. The volunteers meet at Gaynor's house every so often to pack the items in bags for the soldiers. Gaynor either delivers the bags to Hunter Army Airfield or someone picks them up from her. The bags are then placed in the barracks for the soldiers to find upon return.
Carson said Operation Welcome Home has so far donated more than 6,000 bags to soldiers. They will hand out another 2,500 in the next couple of months, when several brigades of the Third Infantry Division are scheduled to return to Georgia. Carson said the Wexford group has donated about 200 bags so far.
"They are one of our biggest supporters," he said.
Gaynor is glad to help.
"I am so appreciative of what the soldiers are doing," she said. "The sacrifice they're giving us for our freedom is unbelievable. It's a way we can say thank you in a small way."