Saturday, May 24, 2014

Books on the Battlefield

by Mary Kennedy
(I wrote this article for PW in 2012 but I thought readers might like to see it again.)
I'd never met Lt. Col Lisa Schieferstein, yet I was intrigued by her story. I knew Lisa was half a world away, doing a tough job in a gritty, remote location. As the garrison commander of the 389th "Renegades" division in Iraq, she was stationed at a desert outpost, with ninety soldiers under her command. The heat was appalling, the conditions were rugged and danger was ever-present. (When I sent them instant "cups of soup," the desert heat was so brutal, they could add water to the Styrofoam cups and cook the soup right on the hood of their jeeps.)
Even though my life is incredibly cushy by comparison (a nice psychology practice, a second career as a mystery novelist) when I saw a photo of Lisa--in full body armor--visiting a one-room Iraqi schoolhouse to bring presents to the children, I knew right away we had something in common; a love of books. We began to e-mail each other and I was offered a glimpse into her day-to-day life. 
When I learned that the 389th was a "sustainment division," offering food and snacks to American convoys passing through, I decided to send boxes of books and homemade goodies to the Renegades every two weeks. Over the course of the summer, I mailed over 200 pounds of boxes stuffed with brownies, "sweet" Chex mix snacks made with pecans and corn syrup, individual packages of Crystal Light, coffee, creamer and sugar.  Tuna fish and individual packets of mayo. (They loved to make tuna salad sandwiches). Plus plenty of gum and hard candy (good for staying alert during night patrols, they told me.) And I included paperback books. They loved mysteries! My writer pals joined in with copies of their new releases and Carolyn Hart made regular donations of her best-selling books along with delicious gourmet coffees.
Kim Adams, SOS Military Liaison and an Air Force spouse said, "As a veteran of the first Gulf War, I know firsthand what difference mail makes to deployed personnel. But that war was short-term and our troops came home. Today, our military personnel are facing longer and more repeated deployments. I wish everyone reading this piece could adopt a soldier and send books, candy, snack and sure, home-made cookies or brownies. It's easy to do and it really means the world to our brave men and women in the armed forces."                                 
As Janet Evanovich told me, "If Stephanie Plum could meet the Renegades, she'd give them a high-five and say, "Well done!"
Epilogue: all of the Renegades are now safely home in the States. I know you join me in thanking them for their service.
Mary Kennedy