A man told me last week he knew of 11 American soldiers who had died overseas in the previous two weeks. He knew their names and where they were stationed. They weren’t his biological sons but they called him ‘Papa Ferg,’ and he cared for them as if they were his own.
My journey to a meeting with him began when a reader called and asked if I knew how to send care packages to soldiers overseas in Iraq and Afghanistan; she and her friends were thinking about the men and women who would be away from their families for the holidays and wanted to send them a care package, but couldn’t find someone willing to tell them how. That led me to Gayron Ferguson, President of the West Kentucky Hugs Project.
When I called Ferguson I was intending to do a phone interview because the operation runs out of Paducah, but he insisted I come see the operation in person and I’m glad he did. On the phone, I could tell he was excited about his mission but in person, I was able to see what I had perceived as excitement was pure passion. A large flag was hanging on the front porch of the home in Reidland he and his volunteers use to stuff the hundreds of boxes they send out each month, and the walls adorned with flags that flew in U.S. aircraft during bombing missions with the certificates of authenticity. They were tokens of appreciation sent to him by soldiers who his mission had touched and he beamed with pride, tears in his eyes as he told me about them.
As he talked about his son, a U.S. Marine, and his son’s buddies and how taking care of them blossomed into taking care of more than 12,500 soldiers in the last 11 years, my heart was warming. But then he started telling me how the donations have been slower coming in and they don’t get as many as they used to. He said it’s as if people have forgotten about the war in the Middle East and the soldiers who are fighting it.
Ferguson recalled one guy who said he’s been home physically from Afghanistan for nearly a year but mentally has trouble leaving it behind and when he’s heading into a dark place, pulls out the letters that accompanied the packages and reads them to help bring himself out of it. He said if he was able to save the life of one soldier who came home with PTSD, that was absolutely worth each of the more than 46,500 boxes he had sent over the years and all the time and dedication it takes to make even one box happen.
I was glad he insisted I come see the place in person because he was right, I wouldn’t have “gotten it” if I hadn’t. I read a few letters hanging on the refrigerator from soldiers abroad and felt almost embarrassed that I had never considered how such a simple gesture would mean so much. Not that I don’t think about or appreciate our soldiers, I have many friends who have served in the war and more that are currently serving. But I never considered that something as simple as a box full of items from home would mean so much, or that letters penned by a complete stranger would be strong enough to save a man’s life.