David Lauderdale

'Cookie Lady' finds first recipient, 22 years and 3 million cookies later

"Hello, Mom. I pray all is well."

With those words, Valaria Smith and Jeanette Cram ended years of separation, and a remarkable story about the American spirit had come full circle.

Jeanette is not Valaria's mother. She's the "Cookie Lady" of Hilton Head Island. She has been sending homemade cookies to troops overseas since the first George Bush hinted it was something we could all do in 1990.

Valaria is believed to be the first soldier to get the cookies. She was the first to write back to the stranger she'd come to know as "Mom":

"I'm (U.S. Army) Staff Sgt. Valaria Smith," she wrote from Saudi Arabia in September 1990. "We scream thank-you, thank-you, thank-you. I hadn't received any mail the day the postal carrier handed me the 'Any Soldier' mail. Everyone had a chance to sample your cookies. They were fresh and good. I never thought people cared about the soldiers, but now I'll have to think again. Jeanette, it meant a lot to me and others. We can't thank you enough. We hope to return safe, and give you a good healthy report. Thanks again! Victory!"

Twenty-two years later, hundreds of volunteer cookie-makers called "crumbs" make up the nonprofit Treat the Troops organization. They're just 3,000 cookies short of 3 million cookies that have been made from scratch in a home kitchen, boxed and mailed overseas.

This week, Valaria and Jeanette will meet face-to-face for the first time at a small party in Jeanette's home to celebrate her new book: "Soldiers, Cookies & the Crumbs: The Story of Treat the Troops."

America's story

Good Housekeeping magazine was the first to tell the story nationally.

Jeanette and her husband, Jack, have traipsed off to New York for her appearances on the "Martha Stewart Show," the "Montel Williams Show," "Fox & Friends," the "John Walsh Show," and a CBS morning show.

That fed corporate donations for supplies and bakeware. DuPont promoted its Teflon cookware with a "Great American Cookie Swap" benefiting Treat the Troops. The book says DuPont expected about 1,500 people to sign up, but it turned out to be 20,000.

Jeanette was invited to the Pentagon twice where she exchanged hugs and well wishes with Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld.

Then she was invited to the White House to meet President George W. and Laura Bush. She and representatives of 13 other groups supporting soldiers were put at ease by the first family in the Oval Office.

The publicity helped the program spread to other states.

At home, several groups of crumbs are hard at work in their kitchens. Groups from Sun City Hilton Head and Long Cove Club bake cookies. Once a month they're all taken to Jeanette's house, where they are boxed for mailing.

With the help of SCORE, Treat the Troops gained nonprofit status. It has a website. It has a volunteer board of directors. Cookie-makers still provide all their own supplies, with cash donations used for postage.

The book is filled with letters of appreciation from the war zone.

But Jeanette says, "If I hadn't gotten that letter from Valaria, I may not have kept on going."

'Mom, I'm home'

Valaria had 30 people under her in the 724th support battalion of the 3rd Infantry Division when she was rushed to Saudi Arabia.

"When we landed, it was 130 degrees and there was nothing there -- no buildings, no provisions," Valaria said. "We had absolutely nothing."

That changed over time, but within weeks she was eating homemade cookies.

"I wrote Jeanette things I wouldn't tell my mother," Valaria said. "I didn't know if I was going to make it out."

She sent Jeanette a silk prayer rug and Mother's Day cards. When she got home safely after 9 1/2 months in the Middle East -- during which the Army thought she was dead at one point and told her real mother that -- Valaria called Jeanette and said, "Mom, I'm home."

They lost track as Valaria marched through her 23-year career, retiring a decade ago as a master sergeant. Now she lives in Hinesville, Ga., just a couple of hours away.

Valaria was tracked down last month by another woman who says Jeanette became like a mother to her. Janna Rowe found Treat the Troops on the Internet and asked for cookies to be sent to her husband's troops in the Middle East. He has since retired as a lieutenant colonel, thinking he hadn't done enough in 28 years for his country. Janna will be driving from Oklahoma for the book party this week.

Valaria looks back on it and says, "Her food has been around the world and it's done a lot. And it's still doing a lot. Soldiers are real people and little things go a long way. God bless her."

Follow columnist David Lauderdale at twitter.com/ThatsLauderdale.

Related content:

Treat the Troops