Wesley Chapel, Florida -- When you're thousands of miles from home, even the simplest creature comfort can make you feel better. That's especially true for troops serving in war zones.
For 20 years, a group based in Hillsborough County has been making a difference in the lives of troops overseas with special care packages from home.
Support The Troops, Inc. is based in an unassuming warehouse in Wesley Chapel. It's filled with a stash of goodies rivaling anything you'd find at Sam's Club or Costco--everything from cookies and candies to cigars and coffee. Some of it might be mislabeled or misdated. All of it ends up overseas, in the hands of forward-deployed troops who don't have access to PXs or exchanges where they can get basic items.
"These are only forward-deployed bases--what they call the tip of the spear," said Support The Troops director Mark VanTrees. "In Afghanistan, because of the nature of the engagement, everything is flown. Everything is taken by helicopter to the base. So they don't have luxury items."
Support The Troops sends out between 150 and 175 care packages a week. One box is enough to supply an entire unit. All of the boxes are packed by volunteers.
"I have probably 300 volunteers," says VanTrees. "Some come in every day, some come in once a week, some come in once a month. 80% are former military."
Marine veteran Lonnie Winchester is one of the volunteers. He understands how important the packages are because he used to get them during two tours in Iraq.
"It means everything when you really have nothing," said Winchester. "You look forward to those things that you get--the chips, the cigars, the candies, the letters from kids. That mean a lot to all of us."
Winchester volunteers every week at Support The Troops because he knows how important the boxes are.
"They're changing people lives like they changed mine. I came back to help and volunteer because I know how much it meant to me and the rest of the troops that are over there with me that received the same packages.